Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A "Discussion" of Political Philosophy

Frankly, political philosophy is not something I spend much time on at all. Calling myself a conservative after a life when my sharpest and most defined political position was extreme left - commie indeed - is primarily a sense that government is not the solution to problems. Community is the solution to problems. Moreover, where government must handle problems - the government closest to the problem should handle the problem. This is a very conservative position.

Of course, I was a VERY well read Marxist. I have read Capital even. Tons of Mao, Lenin, Stalin, DuBois, and on and on. Indeed, I was as well read in Marxist political and revolutionary philosophy as I am now in the Bible. Actually, I haven't caught up quite yet in the Bible and theology.

If I was 20 or 30 something and my entire voting political life had been spent with neo-conservatives I would probably be a liberal as well. After all, neo-conservative philosophy grew primarily out of ex-Trotskyists who left the Old Left. I am not a neo-conservative. A root of my conservatism is that government should only spend what it makes. Tax cuts in the middle of the largest deficits in our history, and in the midde of a war, is not a conservative philosophical point for me: budgets should be balanced except in emergencies or perhaps to build necessary infrastructure for the future (thereby borrowing against that future is ok).

I would, for instance, support a modified flat-tax. Exempt the first $20,000 in income and everybody pay the same percentage. Lets say that is 10% (I do not know what the latest estimates are): I will make about $36000 this year, so I would pay my $1600 in taxes; and the guy make $120,000 a year can pay their $10000. Mr $1,200,000 can pay their $118,000. Understand this only makes sense if there are no deductions other than that first exemption - which could vary by family size and whether there were disabled in the family as it does now. I do not think graduated income taxes are fair particularly, and they have led to a plethora of deductions to whittle down the rich's contribution anyway.

But, I am not here right now to get bogged in those kind of details. Let us talk some underlying philosophy. I have a feeling that, like me, most folk's political allegiance and philosophy is not that deeply held or understood. It is more a matter of who "does the right things" in their eyesight: Liberals feed the poor, conservatives feed the rich; conservatives start wars and bomb babies, liberals hate war and love babies; and the such. For me, Christ has pointed out that the reasons we do what we do are at least as important as what we do. Christ views our heart and not just our actions. How and why you feed the poor is at least as important as feeding them: I have been on welfare and foodstamps and I know this is true.

In Joe Carter's world-class bash of Ann Coulter for her lack of civility [liberals might want to read through the comments to see how they are viewed from the right] he makes this comment:

Our political culture has truly become debased when even conservatives now accept what James Q. Wilson has described as the elevation of self-expression over self-control. (Perhaps it is to be expected, though, of a movement that has replaced the wisdom of Russell Kirk with the soundbites of Rush Limbaugh.)We have heartily embraced the leftist ideal that we have an inherent right to be as stupid and as banal as we want. As the legal scholar Stephen Carter says, "When offensiveness becomes a constitutional right, it is a right without any tradition behind it, and consequently we have no norms to govern its use."

This "right" does have a tradition, though, for stupidity has a pedigree that reaches back to our first ancestor. "Stupidity is a form of behavior," said the late media critic Neil Postman, "It is not something we have; it is something we do." Conservatism used to recognize this fact and even played a role in society by helping citizens to avoid moral stupidity.

This is essentially what Russell Kirk was getting at when he outlined his six principles of conservatism. The principle of moral order (a belief in a transcendent moral order to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society), the principle of prescription (a reliance on the "wisdom of our ancestors"), and the principle of prudence (public measures should be judged by their long-term consequences) are all means of preventing moral stupidity. [This led me to wonder who Russell Kirk was, and about his six principles - so I looked them up, but that is coming.]
Frankly, as a once very active member of the new left this criticism strikes me as accurate. In a desire to "question everything" and "question authority" we engaged in serious "moral stupidity". The "free love" of my generation led to death of countless number of people by AIDS. In 1972, at the height of the power of the Vietnam era radical left and those counter-cultural changes, AIDS was entering the gay community as a future killer. As they have discovered in Nigeria, abstinance and being faithful to one person are critical to stopping AIDS; and very conservative attributes. These attributes are universal goods and not just great ways to stop a killer disease.

The idea of universal truth, or universal goods, brings us back to Russell Kirk and the real point of this post, and where I would like the discussion to go. His six principles of conservatism:
Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors . . .; they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine. . .

I think that there are six canons of conservative thought--
  1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality . . . cannot of itself satisfy human needs. . . . True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls "Logicalism" in society [see "Civilization without Religion?" for more on Graves]. . . .

  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives have often been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

  4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not progress.

  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract desings. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.

  6. Recognition that change may not be salutory reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence. . . .
In a revolutionary epoch, sometimes men taste every novelty, sicken of them all, and return to ancient principles so long disused that they seem refreshingly hearty when they are rediscovered. . . . The true conservative thinks of this process [of historical change and conflagration], which looks like chance or fate, as, rather, the providential operation of a moral law of polarity. And Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society, so near to suicide, is the end for which Providence has prepared man. If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.
and, as a counter-balance for the discussion, Kirk's Four Principles of Radicalism:
(1) The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin.

(2) Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and various ideologies are presented as substitutes.

(3) Political levelling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical ideal. Allied with this spirit, generally, is a dislike of old parliamentary arrangments and an eagerness for centralization and consolidation.

(4) Economic levelling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals; and collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.

As a fifth point, one might try to define a commmon radical view of the state's function; but here the chasm of opinion between the chief schools of innovation is too deep for any satisfactory generalization. One can only remark that radicals unite in detesting [Edmund] Burke's description of the state as ordained of God, and his concept of society as joined in perpetuity by a moral bond among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born--the community of souls.
Since I am really a political philosophy novice, I am doing this as a learning exercise for me.

Have fun


  1. Just found your blog via Stranded in the Mountains...very interesting, indeed. I'll bookmark to return and catch up a little. You are so right when you say that government is not the solution to problems. Amen to that!

  2. Um. . .wow. I've been wandering around a bit, and you seem to be a very insightful fellow.

    Thanks for the support, over at SP.



How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly