A puzzle for conservatives

Carl Scott:

Moreover, some of the more powerful “moderate” voices, i.e., voices which counsel a rejection of both parties, began presenting genuinely radical criticisms of the entire American regime, often from a religious angle. I am thinking here especially of our friend Patrick Deneen–read his latest here–, of the “radical orthodoxy” theologians, etc. Conservatives have had little effective answer to these voices about the spiritual ravages of modern commerce and technology, especially as the concrete social consequences of these (vanishing middle-class, birth dearth, skill-famine, etc,) came more and more undeniably into view.

How can a conservative reply to the accusation that liberal politics and economics (democracy and capitalism) are spiritually debilitating?  While we’re at it, how does a Marxist respond to the observation that capitalism produces gross inequalities of wealth, and how does a monarchist answer the charge that democratic polities always fall prey to demagogy?  The American misuse of political labels can lead to some dicey conundrums.

Actually, there are many sound observations in the linked post.  One can see it as a part of the salutary loss of faith in the American creed that we see slowly unfolding at First Things.  Scott has some appropriately critical things to say about capitalism, and even some sobering things to say about democracy.  No doubt the writers at First Things still have far to go.  The post begins with an odd claim that America and the world are suffering from a loss of faith in democracy.  I wish I saw some evidence of such a happy development–I’m surprised that someone calling himself a conservative would find it discouraging.  Scott’s impression that America is becoming more polarized and ungovernable is understandable given the government shutdown.  Nevertheless, from the broader perspective, what is really striking is how little dissension we are seeing among the people even as the foundation of our civilization, the patriarchal family, is being attacked and destroyed before our eyes.  Against this assault on human nature and religion, what can stand.  Certainly not

A vision of an America united around liberty, racial integration, technological progress, widely-enjoyed economic opportunities and prosperity, and the defense of democracy around the world, and more deeply, around the values of the Founders and the Bible…

That’s already Jacobinism, just waiting to be shown its logical endpoint.

4 Responses

  1. “Do not despair- many are happy much of the time; more eat than starve, more are healthy than sick, more curable than dying; not so many dying as dead; and one of the thieves was saved. Hell’s bells and all’s well- half the world is at peace with itself, and so is the other half; vast areas are unpolluted; millions of children grow up without suffering deprivation, and millions, while deprived, grow up without suffering cruelties, and millions, while deprived and cruelly treated, none the less grow up. No laughter is sad and many tears are joyful. At the graveside the undertaker doffs his top hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner. Wham, bam, thank you Sam.”

    -from the coda to Jumpers, a play by Tom Stoppard, published in 1972.

  2. The contradiction at the heart of liberalism lies in its simultaneous assertion of popular sovereignty and universal human rights. In the brief interlude between the absolutist state of the Ancien Régime and modern totalitarian states, this was achieved by the separation of the public sphere of state activity and the private sphere of civil society. The state provided a legally codified order within which social customs, economic competition, religious beliefs, and so on, could be pursued without interference.

    But, when the social consensus on which the distinction rested breaks down, liberalism has no way of defining or defending the boundaries of this sphere; everything becomes potentially political.

    Rousseau saw this very well. “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign is sole judge of what is important,” for “ if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.”

  3. The second quote is a nice illustration of the jumble that passes for conservative thought. It is pretty clear that we cannot simultaneously maximize liberty and racial integration, that technological progress nowadays tends to narrow the segment of the population enjoying economic opportunities and prosperity, and that there is very little overlap between the values of the Founders, the values of the Bible, and the “democracy” that the U.S. is presently spreading.

  4. OK, suppose the guys at First Things get clueful and throw the Party of Mammon under the bus. They will notice that the bus tires are crushing First Things, rather than the GOP. Then, as their vision dims and the blood flows out, they will notice all the bright-eyed but dim-witted men of the new magazine First-and-a-Half Things hobnobbing with Bill Kristol on this year’s National Review Cruise.

    Or, at least that’s what Sam Francis and Joe Sobran tell me is going to happen.

    It seems like something bad has to happen to Conservatism Inc, given that it is run by this bizarre collection of con men, morons, and lunatics. But, the bad thing just keeps not happening to it. Democrats keep pointing out, correctly and well, that the GOP is doing and saying crazy things as a matter of routine. But when is this behavior going to come back to bite them?

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