The defeated Democrats and their furious supporters of the fourth estate have not tried to find out what Donald Trump and his like-thinkers actually think. They accuse him and his supporters of being everything they consider vile. So it’s a welcome development if some journalists try to find out what he believes, what he stands for, what he aims at.
Two researchers, apparently already convinced that President Trump’s own ideas are not discoverable at present (a conviction stated with a hint that he doesn’t have any), studied instead his closest adviser, a man with a philosophical turn of mind, and investigated him through what he had said and done in the past. If there is to be such a thing as Trumpism, it would be formed by this thinker, they deduce.
The adviser is Stephen Bannon. His official position in the White House is Chief Strategist. Democrats use their whole vocabulary of five or six political insults to denigrate him: “bigot”, “racist”, “xenophobe”, “Islamophobe”, “Nazi” (a favorite screech by mobs who are increasingly Nazi-like), and even one label not always used as an insult by the Left – “anti-Semite”.
But the two researchers, Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad, tried to find out what Bannon’s ideas really were. And they wrote an article about him, to be found at Quartz:
What does Donald Trump want for America? His supporters don’t know. His party doesn’t know. Even he doesn’t know.
If there is a political vision underlying Trumpism, however, the person to ask is not Trump. It’s his éminence grise, Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist of the Trump administration.
… Through a combination of luck (a fallen-through deal left him with a stake in a hit show called Seinfeld) and a knack for voicing outrage, Bannon remade himself as a minor luminary within the far edge of right-wing politics, writing and directing a slew of increasingly conservative documentaries.
“The far edge of right-wing politics” they say. So Bannon is on the “far right”? We conservatives only say that someone is on the “far right” if we mean someone like Mussolini, or the Black Hundreds, or Vlad the Impaler, or Genghis Khan. To us conservatives, Mr. Bannon does not sound or behave like any of them.
So now we expect that this article might not be a friendly portrait of its subject.
Bannon’s influence reached a new high in 2012 when he took over Breitbart News, an online news site, following the death of creator Andrew Breitbart. While at Breitbart, Bannon ran a popular talk radio call-in show and launched a flame-throwing assault on mainstream Republicans, embracing instead a fringe cast of ultra-conservative figures. Among them was Trump, a frequent guest of the show.
Trump “an ultra-conservative figure”? A lot of conservatives complained that he wasn’t conservative enough. Many insisted he wasn’t conservative at all.
And the question arises – why not examine what Trump said as a guest on that show? Is it not possible that something Trump said now and then influenced what Bannon thought?
They established a relationship that eventually led Bannon to mastermind Trump’s populist romp to the White House, culminating in his taking the administration’s most senior position (alongside the chief of staff, Reince Priebus).
“Populist”, we suspect, is a pejorative to the authors. And what of “romp”? What is a romp? A caper, a frolic, a bout of jolly play – nothing serious like standing for election as the president of the United States with a smart strategy for winning.
It’s impossible to know for sure what Bannon will do with his newfound power; he honors few interview requests lately, ours included. (The White House did not respond to our request to speak with Bannon.) But his time as a conservative filmmaker and head of Breitbart News reveals a grand theory of what America should be. Using the vast amount of Bannon’s own publicly available words — from his lectures, interviews, films and more — we can construct elements of the vision for America he hopes to realize in the era of Trump.
Bannon’s political philosophy boils down to three things that a Western country, and America in particular, needs to be successful: Capitalism, nationalism, and “Judeo-Christian values”. These are all deeply related, and essential.
We will be commenting on that below.
America, says Bannon, is suffering a “crisis of capitalism”. … Capitalism used to be all about moderation, an entrepreneurial American spirit, and respect for one’s fellow Christian man. In fact, in remarks delivered to the Vatican in 2014, Bannon says that this “enlightened capitalism” was the “underlying principle” that allowed the US to escape the “barbarism” of the 20th century.
Since this enlightened era, things have gradually gotten worse. (Hence the “crisis”.) The downward trend began with the 1960s and ’70s counterculture. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centered, most narcissistic generation the country’s ever produced,” says Bannon in a 2011 interview.
Is there a good argument that he is wrong about this? If so, we would like to hear it.
He takes on this issue in more detail in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary he wrote and directed. The film shows one interviewee after another laying out how the “capitalist system” was slowly undermined and destroyed by a generation of wealthy young kids who had their material needs taken care of by hardworking parents — whose values were shaped by the hardship of the Great Depression and World War II — only to cast off the American values that had created that wealth in the first place. This shift gave rise to socialist policies that encouraged dependency on the government, weakening capitalism.
Again, we would like to hear a refutation of that judgment.
Eventually, this socialist vision succeeded in infiltrating the very highest levels of institutional power in America.
It did indeed. It was in pursuit of a long-term plan of the New Left which its adherents called “the long march through the institutions“. Nothing fictitious about it. Not an invention of paranoid “far-right” conservatives but of the Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), eagerly taken up by the New Left in the late 1960s everywhere in the Western world.
“By the late 1990s, the left had taken over many of the institutions of power, meaning government, media, and academe,” says Peter Schweizer, a writer affiliated with Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, a conservative think tank, in Generation Zero. “And it was from these places and positions of power that they were able to disrupt the system and implement a strategy that was designed to ultimately undermine the capitalist system.” …
Anything untrue there? Anything misleading? Not that we can see.
Underlying all of this is the philosophy of Edmund Burke, an influential 18th-century Irish political thinker whom Bannon occasionally references.
It figures that he would. Edmund Burke is generally considered one of the foremost philosophers of conservatism.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke presents his view that the basis of a successful society should not be abstract notions like human rights, social justice, or equality.
Indeed not. Those are the political obsessions of the contemporary Left: “human rights” for some by imposing obligations on others; “social justice” at the cost of justice itself which can only be applied to individuals; “equality” at the price of liberty, through tyrannical state enforcement.
Rather, societies work best when traditions that have been shown to work are passed from generation to generation. The baby boomers, Bannon says in a lecture given to the Liberty Restoration Foundation (LRF), failed to live up to that Burkean responsibility by abandoning the tried-and-true values of their parents (nationalism, modesty, patriarchy, religion) in favor of new abstractions (pluralism, sexuality, egalitarianism, secularism).
Now obviously we have a difference of opinion with both Burke and Bannon on one of their preferred values: religion. But it certainly was valued by Burke, and is valued by most American conservatives. (Burke had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. He believed strongly in the importance of Christianity as the foundation of conservative politics. And Bannon is a Catholic.)
By “modesty” the authors mean chasteness. We gather that, because the authors name its opposite as “sexuality”. As sexuality is not a value, we have to understand it to imply “immodesty” or promiscuousness as one of the “new abstractions” opposed to Burkean conservatism.
By “pluralism”they can only mean multiculturalism and globalism.
By “egalitarianism” they mean socialism.
For both Burke and Bannon, failure to pass the torch results in social chaos.
Once in power, the liberal, secular, global-minded elite overhauled the institutions of democracy and capitalism to tighten its grip on power and the ability to enrich itself. The “party of Davos“, as Bannon long ago dubbed this clique, has warped capitalism’s institutions, depriving middle classes everywhere of the wealth they deserve.
Leaving aside that secularism does not interfere with democracy or distort capitalism, did that not happen? It did.
This pattern of exploitation came to a head in the 2008 global financial and economic crisis. Wall Street — enabled by fellow global elites in government — spun profits out of speculation instead of investing their wealth in domestic jobs and businesses. When the resulting bubble finally burst, the immoral government stuck hardworking American taxpayers with the bailout bill.
An incomplete description of what happened. The house-owning bubble was not caused by Wall Street; it was caused by Democratic governments insisting that financial institutions give mortgage loans to people who could not afford them. So yes, Wall Street was “enabled by global elites in government”.
This is the kind of thing that led Bannon to say in that 2011 LRF lecture that there is “socialism for the very wealthy”. The rest of the country, he says, is [sic] “common sense, practical, middle-class people”.
There is also “socialism for the very poor,” he adds. “We’ve built a welfare state that is completely and totally unsupportable, and now this is a crisis.”
Bannon wants all of this liberal-sponsored “socialism” to end. He celebrates CNBC host Rick Santelli’s famous 2009 tirade about “those who carry the water and those who drink the water”, which sparked what became the Tea Party, a populist movement focused on tax cuts, fiscal scrimping, and a narrow interpretation of constitutional rights. Channeling the spirit of the Tea Party, Bannon blames Republicans as much as Democrats for taking part in cronyism and corruption at the expense of middle class families.
What Guilford and Sonnad call “fiscal scrimping” we, like the Tea Party, call “fiscal responsibility”.
What they call “a narrow interpretation of constitutional rights”, we call “rights according to the Constitution”.
But, yes, there were Republicans as well as Democrats who took part in cronyism and corruption at the expense of the middle class.
So far, the authors’ attempt subtly to convey a portrait of a stuff-shirt bigot would convince only those who already think of conservatives as stuff-shirt bigots. But nothing that has been said (except to us the mention of religion as a good thing), actually puts a single black mark against Mr Bannon in conservative eyes.
“We don’t really believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that,” says Bannon in a 2013 panel in which he discusses Breitbart’s vision. “We tend to look at this imperial city of Washington, this boomtown, as they have two groups, or two parties, that represent the insiders’ commercial party, and that is a collection of insider deals, insider transactions and a budding aristocracy that has made this the wealthiest city in the country.”
In short, in Bannonism, the crisis of capitalism has led to socialism and the suffering of the middle class. And it has made it impossible for the current generation to bequeath a better future to its successors, to fulfill its Burkean duty.
So what exactly are these traditions that Americans are meant to pass along to future generations? In addition to “crisis of capitalism,” one of Bannon’s favorite terms is “Judeo-Christian values*.” This is the second element of his theory of America.
Generation Zero, Bannon’s 2010 documentary, has a lot to say about “American values”, and a lot of this matches closely the ideals of the Tea Party. But since 2013 or 2014, Bannon’s casual emphasis on American values has swelled to include a strong religious component. The successful functioning of America — and Western civilization in general — depends on capitalism, and capitalism depends on the presence of “Judeo-Christian values.” …
The article continues to discuss Bannon’s views on the connection between capitalism and “Judeo-Christian values” at some length. We’ll cut most of it out, but will also stress that our disagreement with Stepehen Bannon on this point in no way weakens our agreement with his historical analysis, his advocacy for capitalism, or his strong preference for nationalism over globalism.
In obstinate opposition to a universal assumption, we deny that there is any such thing as “Judeo-Christian values”. The values of Judaism and the values of Christianity are not only different, they are contradictory. (See our post, Against “Judeo-Christian values”, August 26, 2014.) The very fact that we agree with the rest of the Burke/Bannon political philosophy without being religious, disproves their contention that “Capitalism, nationalism, and Judeo-Christian values … are all deeply related, and essential”.
(To be continued)
Russell Kirk is a Catholic conservative. We were sent the link to an essay of his titled Ten Conservative Principles by a friendly Catholic commenter on our Facebook page.
As (we reasonably suppose) the essay was drawn to our attention to challenge our view of conservatism as atheists, here is our response.
Kirk declares – rightly – that conservatism is not an ideology. In fact, he says, “conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order”.
So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries. …
We would look back further than two centuries – to the great new morning of European culture, the Enlightenment. Otherwise, we’ll accept what he has said so far without argument.
It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects …
[While] it is not possible to draw up a neat catalogue of conservatives’ convictions … I offer you, summarily, ten general principles; it seems safe to say that most conservatives would subscribe to most of these maxims. …
The following articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
Here we start contending with him. While our view of what moral behavior should be is probably the same in many practical instances as Kirk’s, our understanding of why we should behave in these ways, and how we know we should behave in these ways, is different.
That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
We agree with Kirk that human nature can be said to be constant in that it is not transformable as Marxists think it is and should be; and that what is moral and immoral in principle is not altered by time. But only a believer in a god – a benevolent one who concerns himself with human behavior – can state that there is a “moral order” that was “made for man”, and that “man was made for” a moral order.
He goes on to state this Christian view even more plainly:
This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. … Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order.
We think Plato queered philosophy for all time with his conjecture that there are two worlds: this material one where we live our mortal lives, and another one, abstract, ideal, higher, that we knew before we were born, and will know again after we have died. This one, solid as it seems, Plato taught is not real; it is a world of shadows. The other one, the ideal world, is real. To reiterate: What we experience as real is not real; what Plato imagined is real. How did Plato ever sell that notion to his own elite audience? And how come it has survived through the ages? It is the source of the Christian belief that life in this world (the only world we know for sure exists) is a sojourn in a place of testing, a place of sorrows, and has little value: while heaven is the world that matters, a place of eternal bliss. Plato and Christians believe that people’s “souls” go to the higher world when they die if they’ve been good.
While we concede that there is much immorality in our time – as there always has been and always will be – we do not see that there has ever been a “moral order”. The Christian churches did their utmost to force people – with extreme intolerance and appalling cruelty – to conform to their own moral code of mandated love, forgiveness, gentleness, humility and self-sacrifice. (Self-sacrifice because life in this solid world is not important, and martyrdom will win you a place in that rumored heaven.)
… It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society – whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society – no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
We have no argument with most of that if by “the inner order of the soul” he means the convictions, values, standards people hold. A society composed of individuals who live by high moral standards will be a good society. (Only we see nothing wrong with “gratifying appetites” as long as it is not at the expense of others. The asceticism of Pauline Christianity enters Kirk’s portrait of the conservative here.)
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
Adherence to custom and convention are not necessarily a bad thing, but should never be an excuse for refusing to change when change is called for. Continuity of social institutions that have been time-tested and found to be useful to human life and happiness is obviously a good thing. But they should not be resistant to necessary change: a matter of evolution rather than decreed reform. Kirk is right in saying here that “Change … ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.” It is a point he returns to when he comes to his tenth principle.
He suggests that the “body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls”. We prefer to speak of common interests, of co-operation for mutual benefit, and of patriotism.
Apart from that, we don’t think his discussion of this “second principle” is worth much examination.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription – that is, of things established by immemorial usage … Our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.
To put it another way: relying on the wisdom of the ages, continuing with what has been found to work, is often sensible. But again, tradition should not become bondage. As times change, new difficulties arise that need new solutions.
It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
We do not think private rationality is petty. We cannot avoid making our own judgments. On whose judgment can we rely if not our own? Even if we decide to rely on the judgment of our ancestors, or our parents, or our teachers, or our political leaders, we ourselves judge it right to do so.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. … Providence [God] moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. …
We agree with that as a general principle – overlooking Providence and the devil. But life in civilized lands is no longer leisurely. Travel is fast. Communication is fast. Catastrophe can come fast upon us. “Conservative” cannot be allowed to become a synonym for “obsolete”.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.
Except for his notion that there will be a Last Judgment, we agree with that too.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of Imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.
There too, we largely agree. We would not say, however, that human beings are “imperfect”, since we know of no standard of “perfection” against which they can be measured. Christians of course believe in the Fall, in original sin, the inherited guilt of all mankind because of a first man and woman’s disobedience to a creator god. We find that idea repulsive and ridiculous. We reckon that to live is to suffer; that we are all capable of doing wrong, and there are habitual criminals and sadists among us, which is why we need the rule of law; that each one of us in his pursuit of happiness will find other individuals in his way; that rational self-interest is an enormously useful guide to living successfully with others and treating each other well.
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. … Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. … [A] sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired. …
We strongly concur. And at last he mentions freedom – but only in passing, in connection with private property. We would put freedom as the highest value.
He pays more attention to “the community” than the individual.
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. … It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.
We have cut out most of this section of Kirk’s essay. Of course we are for co-operation with our neighbors to provide for our shared needs and desires, from street lighting to street parties. And while charity is certainly a better means of redistribution than socialism, neither charity nor socialism is a solution for poverty. Self-reliance in a free economy is the best solution.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. … In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.
Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite – these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.
There is more to this section, but that is enough to convey his point. We agree with it well enough. Only, we would express our view on liberty and restraint differently. We say that the duty of government is to protect the liberty of the nation as a whole and of everybody in it; and that individual freedom should be restrained by nothing but the freedom of everybody else.
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces … its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate. … The conservative … favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.
Change is essential to the body social … The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
We agree with him about the forces of Permanence and Progression, and the need for judicious change.
But then again with his final paragraph we take issue. He harks back to Plato, back to the two worlds, back to the Christian illusion that there is a “moral order in the universe”.
The great line of demarcation in modern politics … is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order …
As we most emphatically do …
… and that material needs are their only needs …
As nobody does!
… and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.
We find no “enduring moral order in the universe”, no “order spiritual”. But we share quite a lot of ideas with Kirk’s conservative – enough to make it obvious that you do not have to be a Christian to be a conservative, even in America.
But we find Kirk’s description incomplete. He has left out an idea that we hold indispensable to Western conservatism. (We stress “Western” conservatism because elsewhere the word has other meanings. In Russia, for example, since 1991, the conservatives are those who want Communism back.)
The missing principle is what Adam Smith called “the natural order of liberty”. We call it the free market. (Karl Marx, who hated it, called it Capitalism.)
When Kirk stresses the importance of private property, the missing principle is hovering there behind his sentences; but though he expatiates on the virtue and necessity of owning property, he does not declare an opinion on a right and wrong way of acquiring it.
Ideally, we would like to be able to go about our daily business without thinking about government, without being aware of government; confident that we are protected by the law, and by our nation’s military might; free to do what we please, always remembering that “the freedom of my fist ends where your nose begins”. That for us is conservatism.
And here is our portrait of an atheist conservative: a free, self-reliant, rational person; realistically suspicious of human nature; who knows that to prosper he must have something to sell – a good, a skill, a service, an invention – that others will pay him for; who behaves towards others with rational self-restraint, keeping social interaction pleasant with the customs of civility, but being always ready to defend himself with lethal weapons if he has to. He holds justice in high esteem, knowing it is hard to be just but that the effort must never be abandoned. He honors the legacy of freedom and political order that his forebears have won for him. He knows the value of what he inherits, and will preserve it and bequeath it; but he’ll also adapt to changing circumstances, and is not a slave to convention. He knows and fulfills his responsibilities. He expects his fellow-countrymen to tolerate his differences from them as he tolerates theirs from him. He will not want power over others, and not tolerate them having power over him except within limits he consents to. He seeks success and happiness in this world, not expecting to be rewarded or compensated in some rumored “afterlife” on the other side of physical death or political revolution. He does not abase others by pitying them. He does not kneel to anyone, literally or figuratively. He moves at ease in his own country. He says what he wants to say. He tolerates no encroachment on his property. He keeps what he earns (as much as legally possible from government), and spends it as he chooses.
(Hat-tip for the Russell Kirk essay to our Facebook commenter Robert Wilkins)
The right theory of individual freedom came from an understanding of the spontaneous evolution of civil institutions and traditions. A free society no more needed an intelligent designer than did the human species.
The similarity of process in the development of social and biological life is brilliantly explained by one of the great defenders of freedom:
Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization, it did not arise from design. …
[The] development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and Fance. The first of these knew liberty, the second did not. As a result, we have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty … the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up … the second aiming at the construction of a utopia, which has often been tried but never successfully. …
What we have called the “British tradition” was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, seconded by their English contemporaries Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke, and William Paley … drawing largely on a tradition rooted in the jurisprudence of the common law. Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment … : the Encyclopedists and Rousseau, the Physiocrats and Condorcet, are their best known representatives. …
[T]here is hardly a greater contrast imaginable between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty. …
[T]he British philosophers laid the foundations of a profound and essentially valid theory, while the [French] school was simply and completely wrong. …
Those British philosophers have given us an interpretation of of the growth of civilization that is still the indispensable foundation of the argument for liberty. They find the origin of institutions, not in contrivance or design, but in the survival of the successful. …
This demonstration … represented in some ways an even greater challenge to all design theories than even the later theory of biological evolution. For the first time it was shown that that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility – the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution.
-From The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek , Chapter Four: Freedom, Reason, and Tradition.
Seth Mandel writes at Commentary online:
The fact that the Supreme Court will hear a religious freedom-based challenge to the ObamaCare contraception mandate is the kind of story that possesses significance likely beyond any volume of coverage it will receive. Indeed, while liberal activists will repeatedly try to cast this in the mold of the fictional “war on women,” their own arguments reveal just how far-reaching a definitive ruling on this would be for American religious and political practice. …
Liberals have a curious definition of rights. Last night … the birth-control activist Sandra Fluke [said] on MSNBC …
There’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance coverage on insurance that employees pay for, at the same time that there’s an attack on public availability through clinics.
One more time: [Fluke reckons that] there’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance.
To the left, there is no freedom without government coercion. … That’s the argument the left is running with: they want you to be forced to provide the funding for even their most private activities; only then will you be truly free.
But Fluke isn’t the only one making this argument. … [In] an MSNBC roundtable on the issue … the panelists are panicked at the thought of affording Americans full religious liberty because, essentially, it’s then a slippery slope to protecting all constitutional rights. And then – mayhem, or something:
“This is another reason why we should have moved toward a single payer system of health coverage, because we’re just going to end up with one challenge after another – whether it’s in the courts or outside of the courts – and I just don’t see an end to this,” [Bob] Herbert submitted.“We’re already on the slippery slope of corporate personhood,” he continued. “Where does it end?”
“Where does it end” is the attention-getter in that comment, but I think Herbert’s plea for single-payer health insurance is just as telling. Put the government in charge of the country’s health care, Herbert argues, because then it will be much more difficult for Americans to “challenge” the government’s infringement on their freedom. It’s not just legal challenges either. Herbert says those challenges can be brought “in the courts or outside of the courts,” the latter perhaps an allusion to the shady world of participatory democracy.
So this is much more than a fight over birth control, or even health insurance. It’s about two fundamentally different views on American constitutional freedoms. Conservatives want those freedoms to be expansive and protected, as the Founders did. Liberals want those freedoms to be curtailed lest … the democratic process imperil the state’s coercive powers.
Thus far we agree with Seth Mandel. We are for individual freedom: the Left (whether it calls itself liberal or progressive or socialist) is not.
Free people can say what they like and do what they like (short of interfering with anyone’s else’s freedom), and that means they can believe anything they like, worship anything they like or nothing at all, make and follow any self-imposed rules they like. They only mustn’t impose their rules on anyone else, or if they’re in a group on anyone outside it.
If the government pays for everyone’s health care, it will claim the right to dictate how everyone must live in order to stay healthy. Paying for health care is the quickest way for a government to become a dictatorship. That is why government should not be the paymaster for health care.
But now the article changes from making good sense to arguing a spurious case for religion as a brake on government power:
The Founders saw religious freedom as elemental to personal liberty in America. But they were not alone in thinking that unimpeded religious worship was a guard against an overly ambitious or arrogant national government. As Michael Burleigh writes about the role of religion in post-French Revolution European politics, with a supporting quote from Edmund Burke:
The political function of religion was not simply to keep the lower orders quiescent, as has been tiresomely argued by generations of Marxists, but also to impress upon those who had power that they were here today and gone tomorrow, and responsible to those below and Him above: “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”
Guarding against ambitious and arrogant government was not at all the point of allowing religious freedom in America. Allowing freedom and establishing participatory democracy set limits on government power, but the idea that the unleashing of all religions was done to ensure some sort of cumulative force for restraint is absurd.
Edmund Burke was an important philosopher of Conservatism. But that assertion of his does not stand up to examination. Were the popes and primates of the Catholic Church ever restrained in the way they exercised their nearly totalitarian power by remembering that they were “here today and gone tomorrow”? That they would have to “account for their conduct” to their Master, Author or whatever else they called their god? No, they were not. Nor did their actions ever suggest that they thought they “ought to be”. They carried on, and expected their successors to carry on, in the well-established tradition of compulsion by terror.
Mandel goes on:
Religion was not the “opiate of the people,” intended to keep them in line. It was, rather, to keep the government in line. This was not a revolutionary idea; it predated the American Constitution, certainly. As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order: “The existence of a separate religious authority accustomed rulers to the idea that they were not the ultimate source of the law. The assertion of Frederic Maitland that no English king ever believed that he was above the law could not be said of any Chinese emperor, who recognized no law other than those he himself made.”
The medieval Church kept everyone in line, monarchs and people alike, as firmly as it could. It did exercise a brake on the powers of the secular rulers. (One famous example: King Henry II of England felt that he had to submit to the humiliating punishment imposed on him by Pope Alexander III for letting his knights murder Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170.) But it is also true that the secular rulers exercised a brake on the power of the Church. There was a long sustained secular-papal power struggle (manifested notably, for instance, between the Pope-supporting Guelphs and the Emperor-supporting Ghibellines in Italy, a struggle that lasted from the 12th to the 15th centuries).
The Church or the belief in a Heavenly Judge had nothing whatever to do with English kings accepting that the law was above them. Magna Carta held them to it, and it was issued by King John in 1215 without any help from the Church.
Mandel seems to be trying to build a case – which he touches on by mentioning the Founders, but then wanders off it – that the liberty-enshrining Constitution of the United States was a product of the religiousness of those who framed it. The Constitution itself said no such thing. Individuals among the framers may have thought they were carrying out their God’s will when they wrote it – who can know? But what is certain is that they were inspired by the secular ideas of the Enlightenment – ideas which broke the power of the Churches forever. With all due respect to Edmund Burke – it was especially in post-French Revolution European and American politics that religion had no significant role.
If rulers are to be restrained by anything, it must be by the people they rule: by the democratic process that Mandel himself refers to.
“God” is superfluous to democracy, to justice, and to freedom. In his – ie the Church’s – long reign over Europe, there was no democracy, no justice, and no freedom. And wherever else religion dominates to this day, there is only oppression, injustice, subjugation and fear.
This is from a fine article by Jonah Goldberg at Townhall:
Definitions vary, but broadly speaking, libertarianism is the idea that people should be as free as possible from state coercion so long as they don’t harm anyone.
Or as we put it in our Articles of Reason: My liberty should be limited by nothing except everyone else’s liberty.
The job of the state is limited to fighting crime, providing for the common defense, and protecting the rights and contracts of citizens. The individual is sovereign, he is the captain of himself.
It’s true, no ideal libertarian state has ever existed outside a table for one. And no such state will ever exist. But here’s an important caveat: No ideal state of any other kind will be created either. …
Ideals are … goals, aspirations, abstract straight rules we use as measuring sticks against the crooked timber of humanity.
In the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and today’s North Korea, they tried to move toward the ideal communist system. Combined, they killed about 100 million of their own people. That’s a hefty moral distinction right there: When freedom-lovers move society toward their ideal, mistakes may be made, but people tend to flourish. When the hard left is given free reign, millions are murdered and enslaved. Which ideal would you like to move toward? …
How statism/collectivism ever came to be an ideal is puzzling enough, but that there are millions who still want it after those calamitous experiments Jonah Goldberg names, remains to us a mystery beyond all comprehension.
It’s a little bizarre how the left has always conflated statism with modernity and progress. The idea that rulers – be they chieftains, kings, priests, politburos or wonkish bureaucrats – are enlightened or smart enough to tell others how to live is older than the written word. And the idea that someone stronger, with better weapons, has the right to take what is yours predates man’s discovery of fire by millennia. And yet, we’re always told that the latest rationalization for increased state power is the “wave of the future.”
That phrase, “the wave of the future,” became famous thanks to a 1940 essay by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She argued that the time of liberal democratic capitalism was drawing to a close and the smart money was on statism of one flavor or another – fascism, communism, socialism, etc. What was lost on her, and millions of others, was that this wasn’t progress toward the new, but regression to the past. These “waves of the future” were simply gussied-up tribalisms, anachronisms made gaudy with the trappings of modernity, like a gibbon in a spacesuit.
The only truly new political idea in the last couple thousand years is this libertarian idea, broadly understood. The revolution wrought by John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and the Founding Fathers is the only real revolution going. And it’s still unfolding. …
We would add that this revolution has been advanced in thought further by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, and (more popularly) Ayn Rand, to name just some of the later philosophers of individual freedom.
What made the American experiment new were its libertarian innovations, broadly speaking. Moreover, those innovations made us prosper. …
I’m actually not a full-blown libertarian myself, but it’s an ideal I’d like America to move closer to, not further away from as we’ve been doing of late – bizarrely in the name of “progress” of all things.
Same goes for us.