The Unintended Liberalism

In a conference at the University of Dallas on “America, Liberalism, and Catholicism,” Patrick Deneen gave a talk (video embedded above), in which he argued that the early American Republic was far less liberal than soi-disant “conservatives” (funded as they have been since the Cold War by big business) have thought it to have been. The particular states even had a kind of “Prostestant integralism” as he argues—established religion, laws aimed directly at fostering virtue, etc. A similar point was made by Matthew Petterson in a recent lecture for the Thomistic Institute. That is, the American founders may have established (at least) soft liberalism at the federal level, but many of them wanted to continue to allow a kind of pre-liberal magisterial Protestantism at the state level. I think it is a useful point, especially as part of an argument for a politics of virtue and the common good in contemporary America.

An important question was, however, raised by Ross Douthat at the end of the Q&A to the panel above. He asked whether there was not something logical about the development from Protestantism, with its particular kind of “individualism,” towards a more individualistic kind of politics. Deneen gave a very gentle, ecumenical answer. But there is a lot of evidence for another answer.

In another panel at the same Dallas conference, Gladden Pappin showed how liberalism is always opposed to the authority of the Church, which it has always wished to deny the status of a societas perfecta, with the ability to make laws, and reduce to the status of a voluntary club. But, of course, this denial of the authority of the Church was one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation. The “liberty of the Christian” was taken to be opposed to the authority of the Church. Luther was very clear that this understanding of an opposition between liberty and authority did not extend to the authority of magistrates in the visible kingdom (hence his opposition to the Peasants’ War, etc.). Nevertheless, it was not surprising that the false opposition between liberty and authority that Luther wanted to contain to the invisible kingdom was later extended to deny political authority (Enlightenment and French Revolution), and even the authority of God (some of the more extreme philosophes, and then Feurbach and Marx in the 19th century). That was of course against the intentions of Luther and Calvin, who would probably have advised the magistrates to put Feurbach and Marx to death if those philosophers had lived at the time of the Reformation. But we have here a kind of reversal of intentions and effects, of the sort that Max Weber delineated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or (even more) Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

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The Meaning of Words

Chad Pecknold gave a brilliant a brilliant summary of De Koninck on the common good at a panel at a recent conference in Dallas (embedded above). The discussion that followed, moderated by Ryan Anderson, was also very good. Anderson’s questions were quite trenchant.

Pecknold’s Gegenüber was Daniel Burns who raised a question about the love of one’s country, including love of one’s regime (in the Straussian sense of politeia) as a prerequisite to effective political action. I think that Pecknold and Anderson answer it quite correctly: To love one’s politeia rightly is to love what is good in it and wish to improve it by correcting what is not good. This is also a point that Gladden Pappin made at a recent conference in Steubenville: following Aristotle, he argued that action taken to “preserve” a “regime” in the right way actually changes it for the better. And, as Pecknold argues so persuasively, to make something better you need to have the right standard. How such “preservation” might be done in the current American was indicated with much insight by Patrick Deneen in another panel at the same conference.

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Responding to a Burkean Objection

Over on twitter.com I responded to an objection that Yoram Hazony brought against a Josias essay of mine on the common good. My response is largely based on a longer paper, which will be appearing soon here, but here is my thread (automatically derived from twitter by wordpress magic, excuse the formatting):


My thanks to Yoram Hazony for this clear articulation of a Burkean objection to my account of the common good. It gives me an opportunity of clarifying my position.

Incidentally, Roger Scruton brought up a similar objection in responding to a letter in First Things:

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/10/letters

The objection is that my understanding of the political common good is too abstract, too far removed from actual political communities and their habits and traditions…

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Founding the Christian Society Conference: Steubenville, March 19th-20th

I will be giving a talk in Steubenville in March at the conference “Founding the Christian Society,” organized by the good people of New Polity. Here’s the schedule:

FRIDAY, March 19th – THE ECONOMY

Introduction10.00aJacob Imam
Talk 110.30aBrad Barlow
Talk 211.45aJohn Médaille
Lunch12.45-1.30p
Talk 31.45pGladden Pappin
Talk 43.15pThomas Hackett
Panel5.00p-6.30pHackett; Barlow; Plato; Médaille; Pappin; Imam
Friday Social7.30p-10.00pOptional for all participants

SATURDAY, March 20th – THE STATE

Talk 19.30aAndrew Willard Jones
Talk 210.45aPater Edmund Waldstein
Lunch12.00-1.00p
Talk 31.15pD.C. Schindler
Panel3.00pR.R. Reno; Schindler; Jones; Waldstein
Break4.30p
Talk 44.45pMarc Barnes
Panel5.15pOpen Panel

Against the New Nationalism

The second issue of The Lamp magazine includes an essay by me, responding to Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Here’s a snip:

The first time that I visited Ukraine was in November of 1998, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday. I was travelling with my family to a Byzantine-Catholic priestly ordination. We took a red velvet upholstered, Soviet era train from Vienna to the Western Ukrainian city of L’viv. At the border between Slovakia and Ukraine, the train was hoisted up on cranes and the wheels changed. The reason, we were told, was that Stalin had had the gauge of train tracks in the Soviet Union widened to discourage invading armies.

Crossing the border into Ukraine in the 90s was like going back in time. As the train rattled through the Carpathian Mountains, we looked out on women in headscarves washing clothes in icy rivers, and horses pulling sledges and wagons. The wagons had car tires on their wheels, but apart from that we could have been in the 19th century.

At the train station in L’viv we were met by an old man in a towering fur hat, who was to drive us to the house where we were staying, and by a young student who spoke English. The student told us that the old man had spent years in a Siberian labor camp during the Soviet persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We gaped at this Solzhenitsyn character come to life.

You can read the rest by subscribing to The Lamp.

Wolfgang Waldstein’s Jurisprudence

Wolfgang Waldstein with Cardinal Erdő in Hungary

Ius & Iustitium is a new blog on legal and juridical matters associated with The Josias. I was very happy to be able to get a text posted there by my grandfather, Wolfgang Waldstein: “The Significance of Roman Law for the Development of European Law.” I believe that my grandfather exemplifies precisely the sort of realist common good jurisprudence, founded on the natural law and enriched by the centuries old tradition of the application of natural law in the Roman law and the legal traditions based on Roman Law that Ius & Iustitium is trying to promote.

Wolfgang Waldstein at the summit of the Dachstein

Racial Justice and Social Order

Do we Live in a Society? This question came up in a recent Josias Podcast episode. Serious doubts were raised about whether we do. The discussion focused on the United States, where my interlocutors live. I lived almost half of my life in there, but it has now been almost 14 years since I left. In another sense, however, as a German rock band says, “we’re all living in Amerika.”

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Adrian Vermeule’s Brilliant Essay on Common Good Constitutionalism

The Havard jurist Adrian Vermeule has published a brilliant essay in The Atlantic arguing that American conservatives should move beyond the legal philosophies that dominated the rearguard of the long defeat to hard liberalism, and adopt a jurisprudence of the common good. Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism shows a deeply Augustinian and Thomist of the educative and directive function of law in helping human beings come to the common life of virtue in peace for which they all yearn (even if they don’t all know it):

unlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

Michael Hanby, in a recent essay on contemporary integralists (including Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and me) in First Things, warns that “today’s integralist thought risks degenerating into a conservative Catholic form of Hobbesian power politics.” But Vermeule’s essay shows him to be anything but Hobbesian. Hobbes had a purely subjective and private account of the good: “whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good.” Therefore, he thought that there could be no last end or highest good rendering human life intelligible: “Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.” For all of Hobbes’s totalitarian conception of the commonwealth, then, the end of his political philosophy is deeply individualistic: the security of each individual in the pursuit of his private desires. Vermeule, by contrast, having an objective understanding of the good sees that the end of politics (and therefore ultimately of jurisprudence) is a common good:

Authority is held in trust for and exercised on behalf of the community and the subsidiary groups that make up a community, not for the benefit of individuals taken one by one.

It follows from this that Vermeule sees the state as being obligated to give subsidium to smaller communities in which true common goods are attained:

The state is to be entrusted with the authority to protect the populace from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment. Unions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, and other solidaristic associations will benefit from the presumptive favor of the law, as will the traditional family; in virtue of subsidiarity, the aim of rule will be not to displace these associations, but to help them function well.

I could go on, but I would end by quoting every line of the essay, which I urge my readers to go read.

Conversation in Plague Time

The unknown guide continued to remain; and without appearing to have any business to detain him, lingered to talk a little more with Renzo, and resumed the conversation about bread.

“If I had the control, I would order things better,” said he.

“What would you do?” said Renzo, endeavouring to exhibit every appearance of attention.

“What would I do? Every one should have bread—the poor as well as the rich.”

“Ah! that is right.”

“See how I would do. I would fix a reasonable rate within the ability of every one; then bread should be distributed according to the number of mouths, because there are gluttons who seize all they can get for themselves, and leave the poor still in want. We must then divide it. And how shall we do this? Why in this way. Give a ticket to every family in proportion to the mouths, to authorise them to get bread from the bakers. For example: they give me a ticket expressed in this manner; Ambrose Fusella, by trade a sword cutler, with a wife and four children, all old enough to eat bread (mind that); he must be furnished with so much bread at such a price. But the thing must be done in order, always with regard to the number of mouths. For instance, they should give you a ticket for—your name?”

“Lorenzo Tramaglino,” said the young man, who, enchanted with the project, did not reflect that it all depended on pen, ink, and paper; and that the first point towards its success was to collect the names of the persons to be served.

Manzoni, The Betrothed.