Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?

This post is inspired by an article in The Objective Standard, which proclaims itself

the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective, objectivism being Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of reason, egoism, and capitalism.

The writer, with whom I have jousted sporadically for 15 years, will go unnamed here because I want to emphasize his ideology, of which he is merely a representative advocate. He is either an Objectivist who happens to be a libertarian or a libertarian who happens to be an Objectivist.

In either case, his article manifests libertarianism as it is widely understood: an ideology of individualism — the right of the individual to lead his life he sees fit. That central tenet of libertarianism is a condensation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty (1869), Chapter I: Introductory]

By the same token, a consistent libertarian rejects conservatism’s emphasis on social norms. Mill is clear on that point:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [Ibid.]

Mill thus rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases” by either the state or “society” (ibid.). This exception is a cop-out, a slippery way of trying to eat one’s cake and have it, too. What Mill is saying, really, is that there are some social norms he would like to see enforced and many that he claims not to care about. Thus Mill reveals his inner authoritarian: the “decider” about which social norms are good and which are bad. (Mill isn’t alone among libertarians in there willingness to resort to statist coercion, as I will point out later.)

Lest anyone misunderstand Mill’s overt position about social norms, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated [intended] to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

By that “logic”, an individual is a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others. (What is an “obvious” exception to Mill may not be obvious to the ardent individualists in a Millian nirvana.) Is that what the writer believes?

I doubt that he would directly acknowledge such a belief. But it is implicit in his glorification of the Enlightenment and attack on conservatism. In particular, he praises some unexceptionable cases of personal liberation, which he characterizes as a illustrative of Enlightenment values. From there, he attacks a contemporary critic of the Enlightenment and the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

To begin at the beginning, the article opens with vignettes about three women: one who was raised an Orthodox Jew, put into an arranged marriage, and later left Orthodox Judaism (the fate of her marriage is left unmentioned); one who escaped the totalitarianism of North Korea; and one who fled an oppressive Muslim upbringing Africa and Saudi Arabia. The common theme of the stories is that

these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives [which] is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.

Further,

in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.

What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment.

The article ends there (for non-subscribers). A subsequent excerpt at the writer’s blog zooms in on the Enlightenment:

[O]ne of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab [sic, it’s Sohrab] Ahmari, … recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else,” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”…

… When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.

When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations; the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society; and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.

When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and what jobs they may take; to tell them what books they may read and what movies they may watch.

And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his or her own life—is his primary target.

Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words, “submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.

How does the writer know what Ahmari means by “permanent truths”, “family stability”, “communal solidarity”, and “the cult of competitiveness”? The footnotes to the article (conveniently available to the non-subscriber) list two pieces by Ahmari. The first is a long epistle signed by Ahmari and fourteen other persons. The second is a later article in which Ahmari addresses some criticisms of the letter. In fact, Ahmari legitimately criticizes the consequences of the “liberalization” of society by government interventions and cultural warfare, “liberalization” to which some so-called conservatives (he calls them “consensus conservatives”) have been party.

The writer is keen to present horror stories that illustrate (in his view) the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment to arrive in every part of the globe. But as a defender of liberty he should be equally keen to present horror stories that illustrate the consequences of Enlightenment “liberalism” in the West.

One such story is the increasing frequency of mass shootings in America, which has occurred (not coincidentally, I believe) with the decline of religiosity and the tearing down of traditional social norms.

Another such story, which the writer skips over, is the legalization of pre-natal infanticide — known otherwise as abortion — which Ahmari refers to as “the culture of death”. If the writer has reversed his long-held pro-abortion stance, I can find no evidence of it on his blog. But that is entirely consistent with his implicit endorsement of the harm principle, according to which every person is a law unto himself.

I return now to the article and the writer’s brief discussion of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. How does the writer know that Burke’s kind of society is one of “submission”, “obedience”, “subordination”, and “servitude” — or what Burke meant by those terms? Perhaps there are clues in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which the writer cites four times. The following passage seems to be at the heart of the writer’s j’accuse:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

Romantic twaddle? Perhaps, but Burke isn’t so much lamenting the demise of the monarchy of France as he is contrasting it with what followed.

As Burke understood — and conservatives understand — in the real world one doesn’t get to choose (or build) a perfect world. At best, one gets to choose between a tolerable world, a less-tolerable one, and an intolerable one. Burke foretold in Reflections that the revolutionaries of 1789 were laying groundwork for something intolerable; for example:

They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of Church and State; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes.

Those who would argue that the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror were preferable to the excesses of the monarchy would — if they were consistent — argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent reigns of terror were preferable to the rule of the Tsars. (I duly note that the writer has sympathy for the victims of communism; perhaps he should therefore be more understanding of Burke’s sympathy for the victims of the French Revolution.)

What did Burke really believe? I will draw on Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I have reviewed the book and found it wanting, but not because Levin fails to capture the essence of Burke’s political philosophy. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence to understand my reservations about the book.) Here are relevant excerpts of Levin’s book, which (as I say in my review) capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist) — a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be. And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but their conception of “natural rights” as innate in human beings — like the harm principle — is made of air. Natural rights, properly understood, arise from the social norms that writer seems to disdain (though if he does, I wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by social norms).

To the writer’s great disappointment, I’m sure, the truth of the matter is that social norms — including political and economic ones — are emergent. (This is not a morally relativistic position.) Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31]

As for the Enlightenment in which the writer puts so much stock, it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). As Wikipedia puts it,

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….

Where reason is

the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

On a higher plane, what could be more revealing of the prejudices and emotions upon which reason ultimately rests than the long-running Einstein-Bohr debate, which stemmed from Einstein’s reasonable prejudice that quantum mechanics gives an unrealistic (indeterminate) depiction of reality. (The interpretation of quantum mechanics still remains unsettled, more than 90 years after the debate began.)

Further, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its subsequent manifestations in politics and pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, Objectivism, “climate change”, “social justice”, “equality”) — relies on reductionism, which is

the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

(Thus the shallowness and inconsistency of secular ethical systems, which include but are far from limited to libertarianism and Objectivism.)

Reductionist reason fails us:

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Reason is valuable when it consists of the narrow application of logic to hard facts. I want bridge-builders and aircraft-makers to use the mathematical tools and physical facts at their disposal. It should be noted, however, that the origins of those tools and the gathering of those facts long preceded the Enlightenment, and that their subsequent development was (and is) a project unto its own. To take a notable example, Isaac Newton, among other things the inventor of calculus as we know it (contemporaneously with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz), was religious (though unorthodox), a student of the occult, and an alchemist (see this). Even children of the Enlightment can be — are often are — supremely irrational and steered by psychological forces beyond their ken.

In sum, reason has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics, social norms, religion, or rebellion. The last is too often an act of emotion and interest-group advancement, which can be (and has been) justified by reason.

Just as reason fails us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. [p. 303]

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of rationalists (like the writer), is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

I put it to you this way: Would you rather live in the rationalistic world of libertarian-Objectivists or in Burke’s (and Oakeshott’s) real one?

Here’s a clue to the answer that I hope you will choose: The ideal world of a rationalist cannot be attained by real people acting in mutually beneficial cooperation, which is the essence of the free markets about which the writer claims to care so much. Rationalism is destructive of religion (which on balance is a bulwark of liberty), long-standing social norms (which in fact enable liberty), and the necessary right of free people in society to make mistakes and learn from them.

The writer’s diatribe reminds me of the old, sad story that has been repeated innumerable times throughout mankind’s recorded history. The quest for perfection along one or another moral dimension breeds fanaticism. Fanaticism turns into an unrelenting evil of its own. Just ask one of the innumerable victims of communism, some of whom have survived it.

Moreover, as I have pointed out many times, the kind of libertarianism espoused by the writer isn’t the real thing. A true libertarian is a traditional conservative who

respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Which isn’t to say, by any means, that a place in which traditional norms prevail will be perfect. Far from it — and some places, such as those cited by the writer — are farther than others. But the route to improvement can’t be found by shredding norms willy-nilly and declaring that every man is a law unto himself. In fact, what some libertarians urge, paradoxically, is the selective shredding of social norms by the state. (another manifestation of the smug authoritarianism of the “liberal order”). That is the “logic” of so-called libertarianism.

What really happens, of course, is that the shredding of social norms creates a void that is filled by chaos and then by the rule of power. The rule may be brutal like those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, or “benign” like those of today’s coercively governed Western “democracies”. But it will be a rule that so-called libertarians will rail against — in vain. The perfection of “rational” ideologies — libertarianism as well as fascism and socialism —  is indeed the enemy of the good. (Conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology, though it has ideological implications.)

I conclude that libertarianism of the kind preached by the writer and his ilk cannot be reconciled with conservatism. But they should be allied against their common enemy: the oppressive state.

The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”

There is a smug kind of person whom I know well, having been trained in the economics of control; having worked for more than thirty years with economists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and others whose penchant it was to find the “best” solution to every problem; and having known (too many) “right thinking” persons whose first reaction to every disaster, sob story, and inconvenience is that government experts should make it stop (liberty, unintended consequences, and costs are of no importance).

A small sample of the smuggies’ certainties: “Efficient” means of transportation (e.g., fast intercity trains, urban light rail) should be provide by government (i.e., taxpayers) because they’re obviously the “best” way to move people, the revealed preferences of consumers (and voters) to the contrary notwithstanding. Cities should be zoned to encourage density (because, you know, cities are “cool”, “climate change”, yadayadyada), the preference of actual people (and evidence against “climate change”) to the contrary notwithstanding.

The list goes on and on. You can easily add to it even if you haven’t had your morning coffee.

The kind of smug person who holds such views holds them for many reasons: peer influence, virtue-signaling, educated incapacity, public-school and university indoctrination, and good old-fashioned snobbery (the “deplorables” must be made to do what’s in their own interest). Most such persons are also financially comfortable — too comfortable, obviously, because they seem to have nothing better to do with their money than to pay the higher taxes that inevitably result from their electoral choices: candidates who believe that government is the answer; bond issues and other ballot measures that enable politicians to spend more money to “fix” things. The less-comfortable contingent (e.g., school teachers and low-level government employees) go along to get along and because they must believe that government is good, just as a young child must believe in Santa Claus.

The agenda and constituency of the “liberal order” parallel those of the so-called liberal international order, which Sumantra Maitra addresses in a review article, “The End Times of the Liberal Order“? (Spectator USA, October 26, 2018):

A liberal order is not natural. Robert Kagan admits as much in his new bookThe Jungle Grows Back, when he writes that the ‘the creation of the liberal order has been an act of defiance against both history and human nature’. Nor is a liberal order an ‘order’, or liberal in nature. It is a sort of hegemonic or imperial peace.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; peace, any peace, is important. Unfortunately, it is the liberal part, which causes the problem. An internationalist, utopian worldview, liberalism is full of crusaderly zeal, constantly ‘going abroad in search of monsters to destroy’. Liberal internationalists badly want to shape the world. When given the chance, they do manage to shape the world, very badly indeed….

[John] Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion claims that liberalism itself is paradoxical. It supports tolerance, but it is a universalist paradigm, deeply committed to borderless values. There cannot be any compromise or cooperation, because everything, everywhere is an existential battle. This causes conflict both at home and abroad. Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures. Internationally, it leads to never-ending wars.

Encore: Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures.

The clash of cultures was started and sustained by so-called liberals, the smug people described above. It is they who — firmly believing themselves to be smarter, on the the side of science, and on the side of history — have chosen to be the aggressors in the culture war.

Hillary Clinton’s remark about Trump’s “deplorables” ripped the mask from the “liberal” pretension to tolerance and reason. Clinton’s remark was tantamount to a declaration of war against the self-appointed champion of the “deplorables”: Donald Trump. And war it has been. much of it waged by deep-state “liberals” who cannot entertain the possibility that they are on the wrong side of history, and who will do anything — anything — to make history conform to their smug expectations of it.


Related reading:

Joel Kotkin, “Elites Against Western Civilization“, City Journal, October 3, 2019 (examples of the smug worldview, from a non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Globalist Mindset: They Hate You“, American Greatness, December 16, 2018 (more, from another non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Military-Intellegence Complex“, American Greatness, November 3, 2019 (even more)

Lyle H. Rossiter Jr., M.D. “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness“, Townhall, December 4, 2006 (a psychiatrist’s diagnosis confirms mine)

Related pages and posts (focusing on various aspects of delusional “liberalism”):

Abortion Q & A
Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II (see especially The Rahn Curve in Action)
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Political Ideologies
Spygate (a.k.a. Russiagate)

Hurricane Hysteria
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
“Science is Real”
“Liberalism”: Trying to Have It Both Ways
Understanding the Resistance: The Enemies Within
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
More Unsettled Science
Homelessness
Leninthink and Left-Think
More Unsettled Science
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXIV) (especially The Transgender Trap: A Political Nightmare Becomes Reality and Assortative Mating, Income Inequality, and the Crocodile Tears of “Progressives”)
Climate Hysteria
Rawls vs. Reality

Intellectuals and Authoritarianism

In the preceding post I quoted the German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The quotation is from a book published in 1926, seven years before Schmitt joined the Nazi Party. But Schmitt’s attraction to authoritarianism long predates his party membership. In 1921, according to Wikipedia,

Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay Die Diktatur (on dictatorship), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. In this essay, Schmitt compared and contrasted what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution of his country. He saw the office of the president as a comparatively effective element, because of the power granted to the president to declare a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand). This power, which Schmitt discussed and implicitly praised as dictatorial,[21] was more in line with the underlying mentality of executive power than the comparatively slow and ineffective processes of legislative power reached through parliamentary discussion and compromise.

Shades of Woodrow Wilson, the holder of an earned doctorate and erstwhile academician who had recently been succeeded as president of the United States by Warren G. Harding. Wilson

believed the Constitution had a “radical defect” because it did not establish a branch of government that could “decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done.”…

He also wrote that charity efforts should be removed from the private domain and “made the imperative legal duty of the whole,” a position which, according to historian Robert M. Saunders, seemed to indicate that Wilson “was laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state.”

Another renowned German academic, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), also became a Nazi in 1933. Whereas Schmitt never expressed regret or doubts about his membership in the party. Heidegger did, though perhaps not sincerely:

In his postwar thinking, Heidegger distanced himself from Nazism, but his critical comments about Nazism seem “scandalous” to some since they tend to equate the Nazi war atrocities with other inhumane practices related to rationalisation and industrialisation, including the treatment of animals by factory farming. For instance in a lecture delivered at Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”…

In [a 1966 interview for Der Spiegel], Heidegger defended his entanglement with National Socialism in two ways: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he admitted that he saw an “awakening” (Aufbruch) which might help to find a “new national and social approach,” but said that he changed his mind about this in 1934, largely prompted by the violence of the Night of the Long Knives.

In his interview Heidegger defended as double-speak his 1935 lecture describing the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He affirmed that Nazi informants who observed his lectures would understand that by “movement” he meant National Socialism. However, Heidegger asserted that his dedicated students would know this statement was no eulogy for the Nazi Party. Rather, he meant it as he expressed it in the parenthetical clarification later added to Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), namely, “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.”

The eyewitness account of Löwith from 1940 contradicts the account given in the Der Spiegel interview in two ways: that he did not make any decisive break with National Socialism in 1934, and that Heidegger was willing to entertain more profound relations between his philosophy and political involvement.

Schmitt and Heidegger were far from the only German intellectuals who were attracted to Nazism, whether out of philosophical conviction or expediency. More to the point, as presaged by my inclusion of Woodrow Wilson’s views, Schmitt and Heidegger were and are far from the only intellectual advocates of authoritarianism. Every academic, of any nation, who propounds government action that usurps the functions of private institutions is an authoritarian, whether or not he admits it to himself. Whether they are servants of an overtly totalitarian regime, like Schmitt and Heidegger, or of a formally libertarian one, like Wilson, they are all authoritarians under the skin.

Why? Because intellectualism is essentially rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. [“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays]

If you have everything “figured out”, what is more natural than the desire to make it so? It takes a truly deep thinker to understand that everything can’t be “figured out”, and that rationalism is bunk. That is why intellectuals of the caliber of Oakeshott, Friederich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell are found so rarely in academia, and why jackboot-lickers like Paul Krugman abound.

(See also “Academic Bias“, “Intellectuals and Capitalism“,”Intellectuals and Society: A Review“, and “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“.)

Order vs. Authority

I am an orderly person: an organized, neat, planner. As an orderly person, I have no problem with the idea of living in a community where one’s property must conform to certain standards: the color of house paint, style of siding, height of grass, prompt removal of empty trash bins from the street, only guests’ cars parked in the street (and not overnight), garage door closed when garage isn’t in use, etc.

I know people who object to such rules, and consider them authoritarian. But the occupant of a community with strict environmental standards knows (or should know) what he’s getting into. Living in a regime of strict environmental standards as a matter of choice doesn’t signify a preference for authoritarianism, it signifies a preference for neatness. I, for one, have no desire to push other people around; leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

Oddly, though, the people I know who express disdain for communities with strict environmental standards like to think of themselves as “libertarian”. But they are not; they are “liberals” who have a strong preference for authoritarianism, that is, pushing other people around (e.g., Obamacare, “green” regulations). It’s just that, like most people, they don’t like to be pushed around. There’s no better word for such people than “hypocrite”.

“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection

It is no secret — except to leftists — that they engage in psychological projection of their own authoritarianism when they try to pin the authoritarian label on conservatives. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Another label — which so-called libertarians also like to throw at conservatives — is “tribalists”.  And another one is “haters”. The usual targets of these labels are white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

Yes, aren’t we just so, so tribal and hate-driven? Unlike (not) like Black Muslims, Hispanic reconquistas, feminazis, queer persecutors of cake-makers, illiberal-arts professors, campus radicals, “liberal” yuppies in their chi-chi enclaves, MSM and Hollywood hypocrites, Silicon Valley smuglies, and many another identity-group that takes advantage of America’s liberty and prosperity to spew hate against increasingly powerless white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

It’s psychological projection on steroids.

Disposition and Ideology

In two recent posts (here and here), I’ve drawn a line (perhaps a fuzzy one) between disposition and ideology. I claim that conservatism is first of all a disposition, that is, a temperament or tendency. By contrast, such “isms” as libertarianism, modern (statist) “liberalism”, straight-out socialism (undisguised as “liberalism”), and faux conservatism are ideologies, that is, doctrines or beliefs — though often inchoate and malleable.

An analogous and useful distinction is the one between process and outcome. Temperament is a mental process, a way of approaching politics (among other things). Ideology expresses the desired outcome(s) of the political process. Thus it is that many (most?) “conservatives” in this country are really ideologues who apply the label to themselves, even though they are not conservative by temperament.

In this post I will explore that distinction more rigorously than I have in previous posts. But first I must explain what I mean by politics. It is not just the formal politics of elections, law-making, and other governmental acts. Politics, in its broadest sense, is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components.

The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Politics predates government, and it usually operates independently of government, in accordance with evolved social norms.

In the rest of this post I will address the types of political disposition and the connection between political disposition and political ideology.

MORAL FOUNDATIONS THEORY

Moral Foundations Theory is a good place to start. The Wikipedia article about Moral Foundations describes it (accurately, I believe) as

a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder; and subsequently developed by a diverse group of collaborators, and popularized in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

Further:

Researchers have found that people’s sensitivities to the five moral foundations [Care/Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity] correlate with their political ideologies. Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, Haidt and Graham found that liberals [i.e., leftists] are most sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives are equally sensitive to all five foundations.

(These seem to be solid findings. See “Robustness of Liberal-Conservative Moral Foundations Questionnaire Differences” at YourMorals.org blog.)

This does not mean that disposition and ideology are the same thing. It means only that persons of a certain disposition are likely to hold a particular ideology. Further, Haidt and Graham are wrong to characterize conservatism (properly defined) as an ideology. Granted, it has certain policy implications, but it is not an ideology.

An instrument with five dimensions can yield many different outcomes. Certainly there are persons who are neither fish nor fowl, scoring high on, say, three or four dimensions but not on all five; or scoring low on most or all dispositions.

It’s also certain that many people score high on certain dimensions because they want to give the “right” answers. Do leftists, for example, (a) really “care” or (b) do they respond as they do because (for them) “caring” justifies government intervention? The right answer is probably (b), in most cases.

(For more about Moral Foundations and my score — which conforms to my conservatism — go to “My Moral Profile” and scroll down to Moral Foundations Questionnaire.)

POLITICAL DISPOSITIONS

I posit three coherent political dispositions: anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian. Persons of the anarchistic disposition probably score low on all five dimensions, with the possible exception of Purity. Conservatives, as noted above, tend to score high on all five dimensions, while “liberals” score high only on Care/Harm and Fairness.

That leaves the field open for the wide swath of “centrist” Americans whose dispositions are as incoherent as their stance on political issues. They are in company with legions of opportunistic politicians, who either lack a substantive disposition or submerge it for the sake of attaining political power and prestige.

Although the incoherent disposition is dominant, it is uninteresting with respect the the connection between disposition and ideology. I will therefore focus on the anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian dispositions.

THE THREE DISPOSITIONS AND THEIR IDEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

Anarchistic

The anarchistic disposition rejects authority. This disposition is rarely held, even among persons who proclaim themselves anarchists. Most self-styled anarchists really belong in the authoritarian camp. Theirs is the authoritarianism of violence.

The true anarchist is not only one by disposition but also one by ideology. That is, he believes that there should be no government of any kind. More than that, he believes that rules, including social norms, are oppressive. The true anarchist wouldn’t belong to an organization that promotes anarchy. To do so would contradict his temperament. A true anarchist would live alone, à la Unabomber, fending for himself and avoiding the encumbrances of social intercourse, paid employment, credit cards, etc.

There is nothing more to be said about the anarchistic personality because it is so rare and so withdrawn as to be an insignificant force in matters of governance.

Conservative

The conservative disposition is cautious, but not stuck in the mud. As Michael Oakeshott puts it,

a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight. [“On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition]

A conservative (by disposition) will respect — or at least inspect — the views of others. A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions”. And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by the kind of superior force wielded by government.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior. That behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; that behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

If there is an ideology that comports with a conservative disposition, it should be libertarianism. But I reject the label, as do many (perhaps most) persons of conservative disposition. I reject the label because libertarianism and self-styled libertarians are too often dismissive of the wisdom and social cohesion the flows from voluntarily evolved social norms.

I have dealt with the defects of libertarian ideology at length elsewhere, as I have also explained that true libertarianism is to be found in conservatism. (See this post, for example, and follow the links therein. See also a later post, which takes up the theme.)

If there is an ideology to which I can subscribe, because it suits my conservative disposition, it is a particular branch of libertarianism known as right-minarchism. (See this post for a discussion of right-minarchism in the context of a taxonomy of political philosophies.)

Authoritarian

The authoritarian disposition has no patience for caution. The authoritarian insists on overriding social norms to fulfill his ideology.

What is that ideology? The specifics change with the winds of elite opinion. At bottom, the ideology is a belief that people must be made to behave correctly (whatever that means at the moment). There is no place for trial-and-error. “Reason” and “science” (which are really neurotic emotion and magical thinking) must be made to prevail. Thus force is the preferred instrument of the authoritarian — whether it is the force of mob rule or the force of government.

You will have guessed by now that it is leftists (“liberals“) who are usually authoritarian by temperament. This is no news to anyone who has read about “liberal” fascism. I have written much about it, from many angles. (See this, also.)

Why, then, do leftists score high on Care/Harm and Fairness? I suggested earlier that leftists “care” because “caring” justifies government intervention. By the same token, “fairness” is important to leftists, because once having defined it they can then marshal the power of the state to enforce it.

Even faux libertarians fall back on government to ensure outcomes that they define as “fair”, such as same-sex marriage.

THE LIE THAT WILL NOT DIE

I must end this post by addressing, not for the first time, the myth that conservatives are authoritarian. The source of this canard is psychological projection by leftists. One of the left’s favorite examples of a “conservative” authoritarian is Adolf Hitler. This is a risible example because Hitler was a leftist.

For much more on these points, see “Leftism“, the associated bibliography., and “Liberty in Chains“.


Normally, I would now add a list of related posts, but the list would be intolerably long. If you want to read more of what I’ve had to say about politics and personality, go to these sections of my “Favorite Posts” page:

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left

IV. The Constitution and the Rule of Law

VI. Economics: Principles and Issues

VIII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness

IX. Intelligence and Psychology<

X. Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies

XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government

Because I often build on earlier posts, it’s best to start with the more recent posts in each section, and work your way toward older posts.

 

The Psychologist Who Played God

UPDATED 02/12/14 (related reading and related posts added)

There’s a story at Slate titled “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Here are some key passages:

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change….

…Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting…. This … led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….

[T]he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity….

In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Rokeach — the psychologist who played God — belonged to a coterie of left-wing psychologists who strove to portray conservatism as aberrant, and to equate it with authoritarianism. This thesis emerged in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who seems sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno … was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

I was first exposed to Adorno’s conservatism-as-authoritarianism thesis in a psychology course taught by Rokeach around the time he was polishing a complementary tome, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (related links). The bankruptcy of the Adorno-Rokeach thesis has been amply documented. (See this and this, for example.) The question is why academic leftists like Adorno and Rokeach would go to such pains to concoct an unflattering portrait of conservatives.

Keep in mind, always, that modern “liberals” are anything but liberal, in the classical sense. (See this and this, and be sure to consult Jonah Goldberg’s former blog, Liberal Fascism.) Modern “liberals” are authoritarian to the core, as is evident in the state to which they have brought us. They nevertheless persist in believing — and proclaiming — themselves to be friends of liberty, even as they seek to dictate how others should live their lives. They deny what they are because they know, deep down, that they are what they profess to abhor: authoritarians.

A classic way to resolve a deep psychological conflict of that kind is to project one’s own undesired traits onto others, especially onto one’s social and political enemies. That, I maintain, is precisely what Adorno, Rokeach, and their ilk have done in The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and similar tracts. And that, I maintain, is precisely what “liberals” do when they accuse conservatives of base motivations, such as racism and lack of empathy. Nothing is more racist than “liberal” condescension toward blacks; nothing is more lacking in empathy than “liberal” schemes that deprive blameless individuals of jobs (affirmative action) and prevent hard-working farmers and business-owners from passing their farms and businesses intact to their heirs (the estate tax). Nothing is more authoritarian than modern “liberalism.”

Milton Rokeach, rest his soul, acknowledged his penchant for authoritarianism, at least  in the case of the “Three Christs.” If only the “liberals” who govern us — and the “liberals” who cheer them on — would examine their souls, find the authoritarianism within, and root it out.

That will be a cold day in hell.

*     *     *

Related reading:
James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?,” March 2012
John J. Ray, “A Counterblast to ‘Authoritarianism’,” Dissecting Leftism, December 20, 2013
James Lindgren, “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?,” February 2014

Related posts:
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the “Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited