This was a paper for a political philosophy course. It will probably not receive a good grade in that course.
In our democratic age, when the principles of liberalism have won out in every field against the presumed forces of darkness, yet across the world are called into question, it becomes the duty of a free people to examine themselves, their institutions, and their heritage, and discern what it is that they value. In America, rather than answering “Justice” or “Order” or “Equality,” we tend to answer “Liberty” without truly understanding what that word means.
John Stuart Mill’s definition is about the best of any. Mill argues that Happiness is the absolute moral good, the one thing which all people strive for on their own volition, and that Liberty was the removal of constraints to each individual’s pursuit of happiness (provided that in their pursuits of happiness they did not intrude upon the happiness of others, within reason.) Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
Furthermore, this emphasis on happiness- or pleasure, as other Utilitarians have tended to call it- is sufficiently broad to include essentially any sort of activity or quality that brings pleasure to the soul. It is not a base and hedonistic doctrine, focusing solely on the pursuit of physical pleasure; it makes allowance for all those refinements of mind and spirit that most individuals would argue are the true keys to happiness. It even allows for happiness to include the indirect happiness individuals find when in service of the welfare and happiness of others.
Thus, all institutions that impede upon happiness and its pursuit ought to be reformed so as to make that pursuit easier and more viable, according to Mill. If individuals are to be free to do what makes them happy- to use Father Michael Kelly’s favorite phrase “to become the best possible versions of themselves;” then it is necessary that restraints upon their freedom to do so be minimized, and thus that Liberty be institutionalized. All of this in the name of happiness.
The political implications of this assertion are fairly clear- an enlightened government and society is one which reduces so far as possible the barriers to individuals pursuing happiness as they see fit, while making such investments as to promote the general happiness and welfare of all people. This includes general education and a promotion of wide material prosperity, while including reforms that relax stiff and rigid social institutions which would otherwise impede upon individual liberty.
This notion of Liberty, or something similar to it, is what most Americans would argue is the defining contribution of their country to the world. And most Americans would argue that their forefathers fought to preserve this Liberty in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the First and Second World Wars. And most will generally laud the sacrifices of those who fought and died in those wars.
But this reveals a certain paradox. The sacrifices of those who fought and died for Liberty did nothing to enhance the happiness of those individuals doing the fighting and dying; in fact it took away their Liberty, if anything. Yet their sacrifices are lauded as a moral good, for they were willing to forsake Happiness and die for their countrymen. We can safely assume that those lauding the sacrifice of patriots are not merely endorsing Benthamite Utilitarianism, which suggests that costs and benefits ought to be calculated nearly mathematically and which wholly disregards the rights of the individual, subverting them to the well-being of the collective. No, those who laud the sacrifice of patriots seem to think that there is something intrinsically good and noble about those patriots choosing to forsake their own happiness for the good of others, even if it extinguishes their own happiness and rights. If these individuals were forced to make such sacrifices, rather than doing so on their own volition, it would be seen as tyrannical rather than as noble. So, in the American conscience, it would seem that there is an intrinsic appreciation and reverence for individuals who make the choice to forsake their own happiness in service of a cause greater than themselves.
Of course, this is problematic because it directly counteracts Mill’s notion, and Americans’ notion, that the pursuit of Happiness under Liberty is the greatest social good and the only ultimate and absolute good. If this is so, why is the sacrifice of everything for it, so that others may enjoy it, at all considered a noble endeavor? Clearly there must be another moral imperative, superior or at least equal to Happiness, that stands above or beside that Utilitarian virtue in the souls of all human beings.
I would posit, then, that a corresponding virtue of self-sacrifice- Duty- holds all the moral weight that Liberty holds. And in fact, Duty is perhaps more necessary than Liberty, for it lies at the foundation of all social order. If social contract theory is true, or at least is a true parable, individuals trade some of their liberties and rights to governments and take on duties and responsibilities of obedience to certain laws and norms of the polity. If a far more likely scenario is true- Machiavelli’s dictum that every reasonably just and peaceful order is founded upon past injustices- then in the struggles to establish and preserve that peace, there clearly must have been individuals willing to sacrifice their liberties, lives, and consciences for a cause greater than themselves. Virgil does an excellent job depicting this in the Aeneid, and the lessons remain relevant to this day, echoing in every speech to combat veterans ever made in America.
Duty is a troublesome thing to define, but basically can be defined as this- the commitment an individual takes on their own free will to a cause greater than themselves, which diminishes their liberty and may or may not contribute to or diminish from their happiness, but contributes to some broader social good. Duty includes a wide array of practices, from obedience to traditions and social norms to martial valor and sacrifice to familial love and paternal and maternal care for offspring. It is the foundation of the phenomenon of social capital, those social bonds which contribute to the smoother functioning of society and the general happiness of all its members brought about by the cultivation of a climate of unity. And, as mentioned before, Duty- and the traditions and institutions it supposes- is often antithetical to the Liberty and Happiness of the individual so valued by Mill and the earlier thinkers of the Enlightenment.
What to make of this paradox, then? Here we have two antithetical principles- Liberty and Duty- that both do measurable good for society and for individuals, yet exist in constant tension and cannot be neatly reconciled. How, then, to value both in society?
The only answer is Prudence. Prudence is that political wisdom, articulated and preserved over the ages in Burkean fashion, that seeks the best ends rather than the best intentions, understanding the limits of reason and the fallibility of human nature. Through Prudence and through Prudence alone can the contradictory demands of Liberty and Duty be balanced out in tension with each other, and indeed, when they are, it is seen that they do much to complement each other.
Liberty cannot exist without Duty. As discussed earlier, Duty provides the foundations for an orderly society, either through social obligation or through actual sacrifice, which set the terms and norms of a civilization; without such norms there can be no true Liberty, as the unabashed pursuit of self-interest and allowance of personal judgment to reign devolves quickly into a Hobbesian nightmare in which the life and liberty of all individuals is stolen away by means of force. There must be some common ground, some common obligations and set standards, which will provide a certain amount of order and a shared conception of justice; and obedience to, or at least deference to, these norms is sustained by dutifulness on the part of all members of a society. Individuals with no sense of Duty or responsibility are rightly seen as misfits.
Duty cannot exist without Liberty. As institutions are inherently conservative, resisting change, they first grow corrupt, then tyrannical; then they decay. And should all individuals completely subvert their own self-interest to broader social goals, there would be no innovation, no dialogue, no healthy dissent, no progressive betterment and improvement of those things in society which can most use improving. Moreover, if Duty is enforced, it becomes slavery- it only retains its noble sheen when arrived upon by choice. For when Duty is chosen it is more an act of love than an act of coercion or mere stupidity. Individuals must have Liberty if they are to choose Duty.
We see, then, the necessity of Prudence to balance these two out and keep them in complementary tension together. Duty without Liberty becomes the slave religion of the Spartans; Liberty without Duty produces a nation of hedonists and a Hobbesian nightmare of sorts.
Broader social goals must be articulated- I would suggest the National Greatness of the Republic, and the Individual Greatness of Individuals. These two goals, those of Aeneas and Odysseus, respectively, respectively can be attained by Duty and Liberty, and must be striven for at the same time. A nation that did not pursue Duty would be decadent; a nation that did not pursue Liberty would be despotic. The pursuit of these broader social goals and the keen balancing of the citizens’ virtues of Liberty and Duty are the task of Prudence to advance, that sublime political wisdom that seeks the best results. Duty and sacrifice are the fuel of Liberty, and Liberty provides the planting grounds from which Duty springs forth.
Liberty, Duty, and Prudence- these are the three great virtues that must be mastered by citizen and statesman alike to secure the success of any republican experiment, particularly our own. Liberty provides the stuff of innovation, preserves the hard-won rights of individuals, and allows all citizens to pursue their own happiness as they see fit, and become the best possible versions of themselves. Duty maintains the bonds of social capital which are the tendons in the organism of society, preserves those traditions and customs which define any society, and ennobles the common citizen to pursue heroic valor, and the chance to give themselves to a cause far greater than self. Prudence balances these two conflicting virtues and helps them to complement each other, without letting either destroy the other. It works to harness the productive energy they generate in the name of worthy social goals.
Walter Russell Mead has argued that the intellectual and political genius of the English-speaking peoples has been their failure to institutionalize a single commanding principle of thought from which all would flow down, instead tolerating an intellectual and political climate where competing centers of power and ideas balanced each other out and engendered a creative tension which didn’t proclaim to solve all problems or answer all questions, but did provide a pragmatic progressive social evolution that best secured the rights of individuals and the greatness of nations. This mixed and uncertain thought appears unsophisticated when compared with the perfectionist tracts of Continental political thought, from the supremacy of God of the Catholic states to the supremacy of Reason of the French Revolution to the supremacy of Blood and Soil among the various German empires to the supremacy of the state of Soviet Russia. These perfectionisms all became absolutisms which intended to make the world over again in a rational image wrought by God or Reason or the Volk or the Objective Laws of History. And they grew tyrannical, then corrupt, then decadent; and then they fell.
The comparative stability of the Anglosphere is something of a paradox in itself- for American and British societies have been changing at the same quick rates of Continental and other societies, but they have experienced relative regime continuity in comparison. They have not been racked by nearly so many bloody revolutions and civil wars as the other powers have.
Mead attributes this combined stability and innovativeness to the penchant of the English-speaking peoples to hold multiple seemingly contradictory views simultaneously and spread the power and authority of institutions around, paying total fealty to no church, state, or party. This bias for dividing power and creating and conserving a diversity of institutions, so evident in the thought of Hamilton and Madison and Burke, and some of their non-Anglo influences like Hume and Montesquieu, has been the real mark of the Anglo-American political tradition- not liberty alone.
The ideal of a tense three-way balance between Liberty, Duty, and Prudence as the core political virtues of any Republic fits nicely with this narrative of Anglo-American success through the balancing and conserving and reforming of institutions, to make for a constant state of reforming timeless principles. It is decentralized, immune to the decadence and corruption that comes with hegemony, while still dominant enough to endure across the ages.
The American people would be wise to consider again the values that make their Republic tick. But rather than the traditional dichotomies of freedom and equality or tradition and progress, it would be well worth Americans’ time to ponder the dichotomy of Liberty and Duty as republican virtues, linked and led by Prudence. Such moral thinking is crucial for the endurance of a civil society.
The last couple of nights have seen protests and violence rock Baltimore, in the wake of the funeral of Freddie Gray. Thousands have peacefully marched in protest of Gray’s death at the hands of policemen, while unverified numbers have taken to looting, smashing, and burning large portions of inner-city Baltimore. Police officers have arrived from around the Mid-Atlantic region to contain- but thus far not to quell- the unrest, and at the time of writing the Maryland National Guard has been mustered. Teams of citizens and emergency workers rummage through the debris, restoring the streets to relative cleanliness, while pastors, community leaders, and angry mothers beseech the rioters to calm down in return to civility, in their own ways.
The response from the mainstream Left has varied from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s smug “I-Told-You-So” to complaints about the national media’s lack of coverage of the peaceful protests just out of view of the news cameras. In few cases, though, have mainstream Left commentators forcefully condemned the violence.
Meanwhile, the social justice warriors of the far Left have gone so far as to vindicate and even romanticize the rioters, likening them to revolutionaries striving to overthrow an unjust system. Chillingly thought-provoking comparisons to the Boston Tea Party have been made, while other commentators just take glee from the poetic justice of the impoverished systematically destroying property.
Liberal politicians, however, have tended to be forceful in condemning the violence. President Obama, in particular, forcefully condemned the “criminals and thugs” whom America watched destroy their own city over the internet. “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday.” It was refreshing to hear this from the President, who largely continued his practice of calling for order and staying moderate on the various racial incidents that have bubbled up at a quicker pace under his term.
Interestingly, most conservative American commentators have shared the President’s sentiments exactly. From the right there have arisen plenty of statements condemning the breakdown of law and order in Baltimore, and almost none acknowledging the peaceful protests happening alongside them or admitting the existence of systemic problems that led to the riots’ happening. The conservative response has been more callous than that of the Left, more unfeeling, more knee-jerk, and far more ignorant of the very real issues facing poor inner-city blacks in America today.
There are problems and virtues associated with both positions.
Conservatives have a fundamental bit of wisdom right- law and order are the first blessings of society, and any citizen who forfeits these and takes to law-breaking has lost what quite a bit of what it means to be civilized. No injustice can justify the individual choice to join the crowds, take to the streets, and tear down the institution of property. Those who applaud this lawless orgy of violence and unrest are as guilty of barbarism as are those participating; those who naively trust Rousseau’s “General Will” invite the Terror upon themselves. Moreover, those who would assign responsibility for rioting solely to invisible social forces, and thereby absolve the rioters of any guilt, thereby deprive the rioters of their humanity and do a disservice to human dignity. As the innumerable inner-city-dwellers who choose not to join the throngs in the streets demonstrate, human beings are not merely blades of grass swaying in the wind. We are complicated, partly rational and partly passionate creatures capable of making moral and immoral decisions, weaving in and out of that complex interplay of agency and fate otherwise known as the human condition. At a certain point, the riots are a moral failure on the part of the individuals involved.
Yet individual virtue and wickedness does not fully explain the happenstance of the riots, or of the protests, for that matter. Broader social forces and trends are at work, and the conservatives who disregard these are guilty of both heartlessness and ignorance.
There is a bit of wisdom that the liberals see, too- namely, that a just society is necessary if law and order are to have any utility whatsoever. And those disciples of law and order who benefit from injustice and refuse to remedy the injustice done to others are simply inviting Rousseau’s “General Will” to come at them with a vengeance. Injustice breeds resentment and instability. A society can only go on for so long with heaving inequities gone unremedied before the plebeians rise to punish the patricians. And therefore, not only for the sake of human dignity and natural law, but also for its own survival, a society that is to endure must at some point institute a program of progressive and continuing reform, lest that reform be forced upon it by natural social revolutions. This is difficult to master, for institutions are inherently conservative, opposed to significant reform; but ultimately those societies following the law of nature, of reformist social evolution, have more longevity than those which cling to a golden past that never was. “The state without some means of change is without the means of its conservation,” said Edmund Burke. And thus, true conservatives must both recognize the systemic injustices that provided the backdrop and impetus for the protests and riots in Baltimore, and be willing to institute reforms necessary to ameliorate these conditions over time.
The social and economic conditions afflicting the black lower class in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in New York City, in South Central Los Angeles, and in a thousand other American locales, are un-American by any standard. Many liberals and progressives tend to place the locus of attention on injustices committed at the hands of police officers. These warrant more attention than many American conservatives have given them. But ultimately, the policing problem is superficial compared to the far deeper problems besetting the black lower class.
First off, the American municipal police system has been horrifically unaccountable to the public. Granted, most police officers are trustworthy, law-abiding enforcers of the law; but even a few bad apples ruin the bunch. It would be one thing if these bad apples were picked out and dealt with when they trespassed the limits of their authority. But far more often than not, officers committing questionable actions have tended to escape punishment or even trial. This is due not so much to institutionalized racism as it is to the entrenched power of public sector unions- police unions, to be exact, which, like all other unions, have a deep interest in protecting their own. This results in situations where even clearly-documented cases of police abuse and police brutality fail to result in officers facing trial, and it is a miscarriage of justice that primarily adversely affects the inner-city black lower class. Moreover, as police unions have immense power to protect themselves, they routinely shield departments from investigation, further impeding police reform. If we are to have effective policing and true justice in our inner city communities, reforms along the lines of community policing and expanded police accountability are in order.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
A horrific deficiency in financial investment afflicts the inner cities, spurred by their volatility and the high amounts of risk associated with investing in such unstable and impoverished areas. That deficiency in investment hurts the small businesses that are already there, and largely precludes the development of new small businesses. Meanwhile larger firms are less incentivized to enter such areas. As such, there is no abundance of job opportunities available for the working black poor; opportunities for both striving entrepreneurs and middle class families to increase their social standing or achieve stability are hard to come by, and thus social stasis reigns while those few lucky enough to reach a certain economic height tend to flee as soon as they can- particularly those who go to college. In the inner city, there simply aren’t enough low-skill/high-wage jobs to support a broad middle class, or enough buyers with money to spare to support an entrepreneurial culture. The cost of living is driven up by housing scarcity, high utility costs, and increased healthcare costs due to cramped urban conditions. It is not a good place to be, and many are trapped here.
The high cost of living and relative dearth of opportunities contributes to a climate of poverty, and in that climate of poverty, crime thrives. Unemployed young men are significantly more likely than their employed peers to join gangs or participate in criminal activity, and the ensuing culture of violence perpetuates the insecurity that contributes to the poverty that led to the insecurity. It’s a vicious cycle that costs many lives and many more opportunities every year. Experts have documented the skyrocketing rates of black-on-black crime and its effects on the social trust of neighborhoods and cities; and the results are bleak. Granted, things used to be much worse during the Crime Wave of the 1980s, but in the present they are not by any measure good. This culture of insecurity and violence significantly diminishes the social capital of the poor, black communities of inner cities.
It’s fairly easy to reason how poverty and violence are detrimental to social capital, but there is another factor that is not often talked about as a matter of public policy- and that is family formation. The black family is in a state of disarray, with record numbers of single mothers and fatherless children. This, in turn, is perpetuated by two areas of public policy with perverse side effects that were clearly not foreseen when the policies were instituted.
The Great Society’s welfare programs and supports for single mothers, incredibly well-intentioned at heart, unintentionally created a system where young women with children would receive more money from the state if they were unmarried than they would receive from a husband making minimum wage. And young black women tended to respond to this “incentive” as one might expect anyone in dire fiscal straits would- they chose to delay marriage so they would be better able to support their children, by earning a higher income from the welfare system than they would with a minimum-wage husband. Unfortunately, this has resulted in several generations of black youths growing up in households without fathers, which has had predictable social effects- fatherless children have grown up less rooted and driven, less likely to attend college, and more likely to end up in jail, than their peers with fathers.
To make matters worse, the draconian drug laws passed under the War on Drugs disproportionately effect young black males, who proportionally grow up in greater poverty than their white counterparts and thus turn to illegal substances more readily, it would seem. With marijuana possession punishable by imprisonment, it is small wonder that so many young black men end up doing jail time for comparatively minor crimes. And that jail time is time when they could be making a living, getting an education, supporting a family, or rearing children. Their absence is a drain on the economy and society of the inner cities.
Thus we have a social crisis on our hands characterized by perverse disincentives to family formation and drastic legal landmines for young black men. The lower frequency of stable black families, those building blocks of society and training-grounds of citizens, provides the foundation of that social crisis- a lack of strong families and the resulting dearth of social capital and civic institutions within the black community.
High costs of living and few economic opportunities, a culture of violence and instability, a sheer lack of social capital brought about by obstacles to family formation- these are the three main challenges facing poor and black America, and they are the social conditions that gave rise to the frustrations that convinced thousands of protestors to take to the streets of Baltimore these last few nights, and animated at least a small minority into a frenzy of violent rage. These same conditions laid the backdrop of the recent riots in Ferguson. It is these horrendous social conditions, this tremendous inequality, that fuels the fires of racial animosity in this country. Episodes of police brutality and racial profiling merely set off the spark, though police brutality being a far more visible issue, it tends to garner more emotional reactions than social immobility, social insecurity, or dearth of social capital.
These four issues- social immobility, social insecurity, dearth of social capital, and police brutality- form a veritable triumvirate-plus-one, an anchor weighing the black lower class down. A counter triumvirate-plus-one of positive pro-growth, pro-social-capital policies is in order. In order to bring the black lower class to something resembling parity with the comfort of Middle America, it’s imperative that city, state, and national leaders formulate policies to promote broad-based economic growth, better human security and reduced violence, incentives toward family formation and social capital, and police accountability. The black community’s poorest members need these opportunities, and public policy towards inner cities should revolve around promoting these social goods.
All should take note of the fact that both contemporary parties have done work that has placed black America at a disadvantage. The Democrats have been doing so since at least the Great Society- regulatory regimes, taxation, and urban planning policies that discourage broad-based economic growth and raise the price of living, soft-on-crime criminal justice, and perverse welfare incentives that reward mothers for going unmarried instead of building stable families. The Republicans, for their part, have supported financial growth rather than broad-based industrial and manufacturing growth, have imposed draconian drug laws through the War on Drugs, and have stood staunchly against police reform.
Ideally, both parties would make some crucial policy and intellectual reforms, if they are to help resolve the urban crisis. But I cannot ask the Democrats to change, for they are not my party; nor do I think they have any incentive to change, as they are doing just fine winning the urban vote while promoting policies that keep the inner-city-dwellers poor.
No, I must ask the Republicans to change, for I am one of them, and in any case I stand a better chance of convincing them- as they currently do very poorly in inner cities, Republicans would only be helped in their electoral prospects if they could design urban policies conducive to the rise of the lower classes.
Therefore, I would beseech the Republicans to remember their progressive roots, and reform themselves again into a Progressive Republican Party, or at least a Republican Party that allowed in itself a significant faction of Progressive Republicans. Such a reformed party would embrace a conservative-progressive reformist Tory Republicanism, exemplified by the Anglo-American tradition containing Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Social reform would be wed with economic liberty, national unity with individual empowerment. And not only would this Burkean-Hamiltonian synthesis be an affirmative conservative answer to the gaping problems of poverty and racial inequality our nation faces, but it would actually reinforce the more modern “conservative” ideas of national unity, national power, fair play, and bounded capitalism. Such a conservatism would value order and justice in tandem with each other, knowing that neither would long survive without the other.
But this Tory Republicanism was not a phenomenon of the 19th Century alone, replaced entirely by obscenely reactionary pseudoconservatism in the 20th Century. There actually has been a tradition like this up until a few decades ago in American politics- the Rockefeller Republicans. These centrist Republicans tended to look upon social issues far more liberally than did their conservative traditionalist counterparts, and one story illustrates the point quite nicely. In 1968, when race riots were engulfing many of America’s cities, Michigan Governor George Romney organized a tour of inner cities around the country to speak with the leaders of protest movements and discern the concerns of various afflicted communities. Romney the Elder built bridges and held dialogues, rather than sweeping such important issues under the rug and appealing to his party’s base.
Where are these Republicans now? Is Rand Paul really their only face, as the Presidential candidate visited Ferguson, Missouri, last year during the race riots that erupted there? Cannot George Romney’s own son Mitt bring himself to face the downtrodden of this continent, and speak to them with full and open humanity?
Conservatives today are in disarray. Not only are they far too infatuated with the libertarian fantasies of the likes of Ayn Rand, they tend to have very little clue as to what our Western heritage is- that same Western heritage the Intercollegiate Review so brashly claims to defend from marauders on the Left. Our civilizational identity is waning and could use a good renaissance; but moreover, such a civic revolution would inevitably bring about a resurrection within our party of a realization of that fundamental ideal of Americanism- that all Americans are in this experiment together. The Left has a penchant for dividing people into neat ethnic, gender, and class subgroups, while the Right tends to appeal to those “privileged” groups that tend to vote for it more. Under such a constituency-based division, it is no wonder that animosities flare up between members of any two opposing groups.
A truly national and conservative party would be unitary. A truly Republican Republican Party would fight for the interests and betterment of ALL Americans, not in the abstract but in the most real possible sense. It would cease to abandon the masses of city-dwellers to the trepidations of Democratic party machines, and fight for them as vigorously as it fights for the middle-class homeowner or the rural corn farmer. It would take the problems of urban America, and treat them as the problems of ALL America- with a sense of urgency, rectitude, and purpose.
A truly Burkean Republicanism would stand for social order, while simultaneously standing for social progress. It would stand for these goals at all levels and domains of society; but the realization of such goals could be made possible only by a progressive commitment to remedying that greatest injustice in America today. Therefore such a Republicanism would work to tear down the institutional barriers and remedy the institutional injustices that divide American communities against each other and prevent the evolution of American society as an organic whole. It would treat our inner-city countrymen as our fellow citizens, not as beings from another world.
As it stands now, our Grand Old Party is not truly conservative.
Let’s work on fixing that.
In writing elsewhere on my political thought and political identity, I have described myself as a “conservatively-tempered progressive populist American nationalist.” In various places I’ve sought to flesh out the values and policies that such a political temperament entails; but here, I will elaborate on the prime metaphysical virtues necessary for my ideal polity-political philosophy being, of course, the pursuit of a practical utopia.
First, the classical liberal ideal of liberty. Liberty is the freedom for the individual to pursue happiness as he or she sees fit, so far as possible unburdened by constraints imposed by government, society, and institutions. It is both the freedom of the individual and the propensity of the individual to sharpen their skills and talents, to associate as they please, and to build a life for themselves sufficient to sate their desires. In the ideal society, individuals are as free to craft their own lives as possible, within reason.
Of course, liberty wholly untrammeled leads to Hobbesian anarchy, and thus must be checked and limited. Therefore the crucial counterbalance to liberty is the classical ideal of duty. Duty is the respect for and observance of natural law and constructed institutions and traditions so as to maintain the stability and justice of a society and the honor of the citizen. The foundations of states are laid in blood and sweat, quite antithetical to the ideal of liberty; and thus the maintenance of order, and all the blessings and rights which come in its wake, are purchased by the effort of heroes. Duty must not be overdone, lest it become stifling; but it is crucial for the maintenance of liberty itself.
Such contrary virtues, those of happiness and sacrifice, must be held in wise, just balance with each other. Either becomes monstrous when it defeats the other entirely. And therefore prudence, the careful balancing of values, means, and goals, is crucial to effective statecraft. Prudence preserves the balance of liberty and duty and thus perpetuates both.
Any good citizen or statesman must practice and live both liberty and duty in their lives, if they are to be an effective component of the society in which they lie. And every good citizen, but especially every good statesman, must practice and live prudence- for only through prudence can the fine lines of any situation be discerned and acted upon.
By combining and ordering liberty, duty, and prudence, a republican polity may remain strong, free, and just. These three political virtues must be cultivated by any citizen or statesman seeking to live their citizenship and statecraft well.
The Daily Trojan has not yet gotten back to me about publishing this as a Letter to the Editor. I publish it here to get the message out to a somewhat smaller contingent of people.
On Tuesday April 21st, the USC Students For Life had the USC Events Office put up their pro-life and anti-abortion banners on the streetlamps on Trousdale Parkway. According to spokespeople from the group, USC Students For Life had gone through all the necessary paperwork and had been approved by the administration. The banners were meant to advertise for a pro-life event called “Life: A Celebration.”
This is not an uncommon practice. Groups with various political and social agendas have advertised their events on the streetlamps, from flyers announcing African-American heritage festivals to the wordless rainbow banners of the LGBT pride movement. Though allowing groups with such agendas to advertise on university property may be a questionable policy, there’s currently nothing intrinsically unusual about what USC Students For Life did.
But someone found the pro-life banners reprehensible. Someone did not like that USC Students For Life was expressing itself and spreading its message on campus. And someone thought that a proper course of action would be to shut down Students For Life’s activism. Someone registered a complaint with the Events Office, and the office found a usually unenforced bylaw that justified taking down the banners. And whoever that someone was, they left a declaration of their intentions- a makeshift sign reading “WOMEN DESERVE THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE!” that was taped to one of the streetlight posts.
By 3:30 in the afternoon of April 21st, the banners had been taken down, and passers-by saw no pro-life message- only the pro-choice one that had been hastily made and posted.
One thing is clear to me- whoever filed the complaints to the Events Office was not at all concerned about a forgettable regulation requiring student orgs to include the name of their event on the banners they put on the Trousdale streetlamps. Whoever filed the complaints most likely possessed two things: views on abortion very different from the views USC Students For Life was expressing, and an intention, in their mind probably quite noble, to prevent the spread of ideas that contradicted their own.
This person, or perhaps this organization, thought it would help their pro-choice cause if they silenced an expression of pro-life sentiments. But they required a veneer of officialdom, so instead of climbing the streetlamps and ripping off the banners themselves, they filed a complaint to a USC administrative office and had them do it, thus using the institutions of USC to undermine the expressive liberty of an opposing student group on campus.
This is malicious, primitive, and wrong. It is naked suppression, not even gilded in the vile cloak of political correctness. The perpetrators hide in the shadows and refuse to show their shameful faces to the world, while they attack an opposing group’s right to free expression. Meanwhile, the Events Office demonstrated cowardice and submission in the face of one group’s hostile attempts to intrude upon another’s freedom.
Conservatives at college campuses oftentimes complain about being sidelined and silenced, usually self-righteously and without good reason. I normally have no sympathy for them.
But here, we see before us a clear-cut case of politically-motivated censorship of ideas. We see a situation where one group’s rights have been intruded upon because they offended some individuals’ sensibilities. Few things could be more illiberal, and few things could more blatantly betray our heritage, indeed our identity as a university, of intellectual tolerance, ideational pluralism, and free debate between competing points of view.
It boggles my mind that we have here at USC individuals whose passion for their own view of justice so strongly influences their moral thinking, that they think it is perfectly all right and indeed a moral imperative to trample all over the rights of those they deem the obstructers and the oppressors. The ends so justify the means, in their thinking, that they cast out all the decencies of discourse and embark on wild-eyed crusades to silence their opponents at any cost. Such is the definition of radicalism. I suppose I should not be surprised.
The USC Students For Life should be allowed to reinstall their banners on the streetlamps. An apology would be warranted for this gross violation of their rights by their fellow students, but any such apology would most probably be insincere.
I would advise two things for USC Students For Life to remember. First off, don’t go feeling oppressed all of a sudden and parading to the world how unfair life is to you. There is real oppression happening in countries around the world; while your current situation is illiberal and unjust, it is not fundamentally oppressive. You have ways to fight this injustice.
Second, aside from not stooping to the victimhood tactics and attitudes of so many campus activist groups, I would advise that USC Students For Life remembers what they’re fighting for in this context. Though you set out to fight for the rights of the unborn, the battle you now fight is not one pitting pro-life forces against pro-choice. Nor is it liberal versus conservative, nor traditionalist versus activist.
No, the battle you fight holds far more weight than any of those petty political squabbles. It is fundamentally an epic showdown between those who would respect the rights of others to voice their opinions, and those who would silence them in the name of justice. The principle of pluralism, of tolerance for others’ heresies, is at stake. Anyone with the guts to call themselves a “liberal” in the best sense of the term, ought to rally behind USC Students For Life’s right to express themselves, regardless of whether they agree with their cause or not.
I implore you, USC Students For Life: Fight on for the ideas you hold dear; but even more so for the hallowed liberal principle that has graced this great nation. Fight on, on behalf of respect for individual conscience and the dignity of difference.
Across the oceans, under the totalitarian regimes of Russia and China, and amidst the swirling anarchy engulfing much of the Middle East and Africa, dissent from orthodoxy is punished and views deemed dangerous are not tolerated. And these bullies who now work to censor you do the same. Their tactics and intentions are illiberal, intolerant, and un-American. Their blind pursuit of justice as they see it causes them to disregard the ideational pluralism that has made our civilization great.
Know that you are fighting for your rights and the rights of all ideological minorities, but especially those these barbarians would be most inclined to censor. You fight the good fight. I may disagree with you on public policy on abortion. But I’m on your side.
I have described myself politically as a conservatively-tempered progressive populist-centrist American nationalist, or, more simply, as a Progressive Republican and a Hamiltonian.
In a recent post, I discussed the influence of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements of 2009 and 2011, and the general political unrest of that time period, on the evolution of my political thought. I also intimated that the writings of Alexander Hamilton deeply affected my political thinking from then onward.
Here, I will discuss some of the various individuals who have influenced my political thought leading up to this moment on April 17, 2015. I will be brief.
To Walter Russell Mead I owe my concern for the reform of governance out of the Blue Social Model of the 1930s and 1960s, and my appreciation for the importance of populism in America. To Mead I owe my tendency to seek the via media, the middle way, in every case in as principled a way as possible. I also owe to him my understanding of the institutions and heritage of the English-speaking peoples being the foundations of liberalism and liberty. To Mead I also owe my passion to develop a Liberalism 5.0.
To Adam Garfinkle I owe my passion for anti-elitism and anti-plutocratic reforms in governance, to liberate American government from a parasitic elite and make it more truly democratic. To him I also owe my Centrist-Conservative Temperament and my propensity for manifesto-writing to express my ideas, as well as a healthy respect for the historical background of any given society. And finally to him, I owe my basic familiarity with the principles of subsidiarity, social capital and the garden society.
To Michael Lind I owe my understanding of government not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good capable of both promoting a sound and stable market and driving economic growth. To Lind I also owe my senses of federal nationalism, economic nationalism, and cultural melting-pot nationalism- the foundations of Liberal Nationalism. To Lind I also owe my adoration of the label “Hamiltonian.”
To Joel Kotkin I owe my expanded appreciation for individual economic opportunities, broad-based economic growth, and a low cost of living as the necessary prerequisites of a healthy and robust middle class and an opportunity society- the fundamental promise of Opportunity Urbanism. To Kotkin I also owe my preference, in urban planning, for suburban and exurban developments, multiple city cores, single-family housing, and multiple transportation options. To Kotkin I also owe my understanding of elite class warfare.
To the scholars at the Breakthrough Institute, particularly Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, I owe my Schumpeterian understanding of innovation and technological advancement as the primary drivers of economic growth. I owe them my preference for massive productive investments- education, innovation, infrastructure- over consumptive spending, like entitlements and pensions. And I owe them my passion for reducing carbon emissions, reducing land use, and reducing resource use through the innovative decoupling of human consumption from natural sources through the advancement of technology- the fundamental premise of Eco-Modernism.
To David Brooks, I owe my mix of Burkean and Hamiltonian influences and my desire for a long-lost Hamiltonian Republicanism based on creating opportunities for strivers and entrepreneurs.
To Robert D. Kaplan, I owe my Tragic Understanding of the Human Condition as half determined by agency, half determined by fate. Kaplan’s works convinced me of the flawed and imperfectible state of the Human Condition, the fundamentally ancient character of the politics of all the world, and the enduring value of the great works of literature and political thought for understanding the nature of human affairs.
To George Friedman, I owe my basic understanding of rational Grand Strategy and Geopolitics. His work has trained me in basic geopolitical analysis and decisionmaking, and has shed light where darkness once unequivocally ruled.
To Victor Davis Hanson, I owe my appreciation for the inestimable importance of Virtue and Manliness, standing upon timeless principles, in social and personal affairs. From Hansen I have also reaffirmed my understanding of human nature as eternal, and the works of the ancients as crucial to understanding the nature of human affairs.
To Yuval Levin, I owe my appreciation for the mediating institutions of civil society and the importance of norms, traditions, and customs in the formulation of public policy. Also to Levin I owe my basic understanding of the Conservative Traditionalist Temperament.
To Timothy B. Shutt, I owe my basic familiarity with the Literary Foundations of the Western World. To Shutt I owe my basic understanding of the Hebrew ideals of compassion and kindness and obedience to law, the Greek ideals of individual excellence and the primacy of reason and the warning against hubris, the Roman ideals of duty to country and pragmatism and tragic sacrifice and guilt as the price of empire, and the Medieval Christian ideals of universal goodwill to all men. Shutt enlightened me as to what it means to be a Westerner, and uncovered a world of heritage to me.
To Joseph J. Ellis, I owe my high regard for the Genius and Humanity of the American Founding Fathers and their unique synthesis of liberal political thought with conservative moral thought. Ellis brought each of the Founders alive for me, and illustrated their lives in such realistic historical narrative that I discerned there has never been a golden age, nor have there been gods among men. But Ellis did reveal to me the sheer excellence which great men in our world are indeed capable of attaining.
I could name other figures who have influenced me in these areas, including but not limited to Ross Douthat, Thomas K. Lindsay, Wilfred McClay, Henry Olsen, Steven Hayward, and many others, but to do so would be superfluous. I owe my thought to many.
I might add, though, that it is not only modern journalists and scholars who have influenced me. Far from it, the writings of such great historical figures as Niccolo Machiavelli, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill have done their share. But that is the subject of another essay entirely.
A subject of yet another essay would be the influence of various institutions in which I participated, such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, the American Legion Boys State program, my family, the public education system, and others on my moral and political thinking. But that, too, will be for another essay.
Thus, I have catalogued a brief listing of those individuals who have most informed my political thought up to the present point. I hope to meet and have coffee with all of these individuals, and work for more than one of them. (The dead excepted….)
And, I hope that one day, I become such a source to another aspiring young writer and political thinker.
I occasionally get asked that magical trap question, “Do you believe women should have equal rights as men?” Upon my answering “Yes!” the questioner immediately congratulates me, “Then you’re a feminist!”
Having no formal training in logic or taxonomy, I am unable to identify the species of this statement, but I can definitely tell that it belongs to the logicalicus fallacious genus. But, to be fair to the feminists, maybe they’re a tad right- by historical standards, I am something of a feminist.
I believe that women are equal to men, and in many cases superior. I believe they ought to have equal rights under the law of any civilized nation. I believe they ought to have equal opportunity in every field of endeavor, from politics to law to medicine to academia to business to labor to service to the creative industries. If they can meet the physical requirements of the U.S. Special Forces, they should be allowed in, and if a religious tradition does not object to their being pastors, they should take that opportunity. I believe in treating women on their merits as individuals, not as members of some underclass perpetually in servitude. And I think the broad majority of Americans would agree with me, and not only agree but put their convictions of gender equality into practice.
So why do I not identify as a feminist, and save myself the stigma of misogyny, the accusations of sexism, and the shame of not being on the “right side of history?”
I have a couple of reasons, but the simplest one is that, as a conservative traditionalist and classical liberal, (or what some would call an “oppressor,”) I simply cannot accept the anti-traditional, anti-empirical, and anti-individualist assertions that modern feminism has picked up. I must stick, with St. Thomas More, to my convictions, even in the face of a public execution in the form of accusations of sexism. I must stand up to represent a silent, non-activist plurality of Americans, who hear the assertions of the feminists and are as appalled as I am.
So here are my reasons.
First, feminism is a form of identity politics at its worst- it values individuals for the facts of their biology rather than on the merits of their character. Nothing can be more dehumanizing, so great an affront to human dignity as this, but the actual stripping of individual rights by violent force. And when such an ideology organizes its followers into a cultural and political consensus, it stands to divide Americans not by differences of opinion, nor by differences of interest, but by differences of biology. In such a divided state, individuals have no choice over the side they choose, for it is decided for them already by an artificial division by gender. In this scenario, the War on Women narrative perpetuates a false gender division in American society and, worse, assigns individuals a partisan political affiliation solely based on their genitalia. Modern feminism thus strips agency from individuals and puts it in the hands of those crafting the narratives, castigating any dissidents as whatever the non-feminist version of an Uncle Tom would be.
Second, feminism relies on scare tactics and misinformation campaigns that would have made Susan B. Anthony roll over in her grave. From phony statistics like seventy-something-cents-to-the-dollar and one-in-five-women-will-be-raped, to demands for affirmative-action-type policies to increase gender equity in male-dominated professions, to aggressive and anti-liberal policies such as California’s new and draconian anti-sexual assault laws that strip the accused of legal recourse, to defense of hoaxes like the infamous Rolling Stone UVA gang rape article, feminists shed the tactics of decency for the tactics of efficiency at any cost. The means, however illiberal and slanderous, are completely justified in the name of the untouchably sacred ends of “equality” and “justice” (defined in some subjective and unattainable sense.) Feminists claim to be “oppressed” and thereby justify radical tactics, excommunicating those not sufficiently pure and excoriating all who stand against them. It all begins to look like any other extremist ideology, but one that eschews violence because it possesses a greater lever of power- major influence in the public debate.
Third, there are indeed differences between men and women; these do not make them unequal, but they do make them different. A trumpet and a saxophone, a trombone and a flute, make two different sounds, and neither is better or worse than the other; each can play the same melody, and paired together they make a more beautiful harmony than either could make on its own. And feminist theory, and gender studies in particular, tend to deny these basic truths of human nature as artificial constructs imposed by a paranoid patriarchy. Everything important is constructed; nothing is real. It is a rejection of reality in the name of subjectivist fantasies and illusions, and when imposed upon public policy it perpetuates gross distortions. Indeed, this reason alone would be sufficient to drive any classically-educated thinker far away from the assertions of feminism. If politics is the managing of human nature, a clear definition of human nature must first be sought; and the feminists, like the radical progressives of earlier decades, view it as more malleable than it is. This is a dangerous idea when put into political practice. It is very possible to believe in equal rights for women without having a distorted view of reality.
Finally, the strongest women in my life are more successful and independent than I am, and they do not identify as feminists. Clearly, then, it is possible for women to be empowered without subscribing to the divisive identity politics of modern feminism. I can’t explain why this is true, but I expect that a large part of it stems from the fact that they reject the cult of victimhood and embrace a concept of individual empowerment that is blind to the politics and sociology of gender. And I respect them for their achievements far more than the mediocre achievements of feminists who claim oppression. One of these individuals is my mother, and she raised me to be a good man, respectful of women, and rejecting the claims of any extremist ideology. Her influence is at least partly to blame for these heresies I now spew forth, though I take full responsibility for holding to them.
Who am I to write on these issues? I, a straight white Catholic man, am purportedly the oppressor of peoples- I, in my very practice of thinking and writing, have constructed the narratives, the words, the ideas, that hold down the downtrodden of the Earth. I am to blame for their oppression, and for the world’s ills. Who am I, then, to write on issues pertaining to the rights of women?
If subjective feeling is the only truth, then clearly I am wrong, and clearly this little essay is objectively merely me perpetuating my own dominion over the marginalized peoples of the Earth (or something like that.) But if there is some objective truth beyond mere perspective, and more fundamental than power- if there is a moral law which it is every human’s duty to stand for, and that moral law is the empowerment of individuals by their own labor and intellect to discern truth as well as they can and defend it in the face of a candid world- if there is some objective truth out there that we human beings cannot ever truly know, but always and in every way can feel- then can I truly be blamed for standing on my conscience by the light of my reason? Or is my heresy sufficient to condemn me to the judgment of history?
That never-ending conversation, my friends, which has endured from the first day humankind rose from the swamp and learned to think, is why I am not a feminist.
Growing up in a deeply conservative Republican household, I always had an interest in politics but I never had a very profound understanding beyond partisan rhetoric. Bill O’Reilly was my hero, and Ronald Reagan was a god among men. Liberals were loons and wanted to destroy America with the power of big government. Life was simple back then.
But when the fallout of the Great Recession sparked a period of political instability after 2008, the emergence of two American populist movements- the Tea Party in 2009, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011- posed daunting questions of political philosophy to the adolescent me. I mark this period, then, as the formative stage of my political education.
First came the Tea Party. I was initially entranced by this grassroots conservative movement, and fell in with it immediately. Its paeans to liberty and denunciations of government appealed to me immensely, and I soon decided to become a true Tea Partier and become acquainted with the works of the Founding Fathers, to discover what they really said and meant.
Of course, the first founder I chanced upon was Alexander Hamilton, and I soon discovered that the Tea Party’s absolute denunciations of government in no way reflected this founder’s- indeed, most of the founders’- actual philosophy. I was disillusioned. I became a political realist of sorts, no longer strongly identifying with the Republican Party but still maintaining my Republican Instincts. Years later I went to a Tea Party rally at the Capitol, complete with a man in stockings and a tricorn hat. The speeches were about as far removed from the actual rhetoric of the Founders as I had discovered they would be years before.
Around the time I was reading Hamilton, the Occupy Wall Street movement sparked up in New York City. I was immediately turned off by it, disgusted by its utopian denunciations of inequality and unfairness. My instincts as a tragic political realist sharpened, and I crowed at the populist masses who dared protest something as natural as nature itself.
Some friends of mine back in Seattle started going to Occupy Seattle rallies, and I thought therefore it would be good to familiarize myself with the movement personally. I was living near DC then so I went to the Occupy DC camp at McPherson Square, and spoke with some of the inhabitants. I found a group of people earnest in their beliefs, and though I disagreed with their more radical ideas I generally found them to be ordinary people with typical concerns.
My brief flirtation wih and subsequent rejection of the Tea Party taught me not to fear government, but to request its efficiency; my disgust with the Occupy movement engendered in me a loathing of popular unrest, but a conviction that the sources and causes of that unrest must be fought vigorously by government. These experiences helped solidify two of my basic political instincts- that government is not a necessary evil but a positive good when efficient and limited, and that it is the duty of government to work to make things better for the masses of the people. In an era of anti-government Republicans and big-government Democrats, both in bed with Wall Street, I did not (and still do not) fit easily into any conventional political categories.
As my political self-education continued, I discovered that there was, indeed, a tradition in American history, now defunct, that represented the basic ideas and convictions I shared. Over time I began identifying as a Hamiltonian and as a Progressive Republican.
The Hamiltonian side of my political conscience dictates that government ought neither limit itself severely nor grow so monstrous as to be cumbersome, but instead must make strategic investments to promote broad-based economic growth while maintaining order, security, and representative accountability. It ought to be centralized where necessary and decentralized where possible. Above all things, the national interest of greatness and the provision of opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals are the two most crucial ends of governance.
Along with this emphasis on the nature of the state, the Progressive Republican side of my political conscience dictates what must be done when a government and society has decayed, as has ours. The stranglehold plutocrats have over governance must be fought vigorously if representative and efficient government for the people is to be maintained. Meanwhile, governance itself is to be modernized for the times, opening as many possibilities and opportunities to individuals in a liberal society as is possible while maintaining a basic quality of life. Progressive Republicanism is very much about reform.
My political philosophy is basically a mix of these Hamiltonian and Progressive Republican impulses, with some other things thrown in the mix. Of the two principles of Progressive Republicanism- efficient governance and anti-plutocratic crusading- it seems that the two populist movements of my youth, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, embody popular frustration with the current malaise in both of those areas.
In a sense, then, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement were and are both correct about the ills facing American society. But neither a radical right nor a radical left approach can remedy those ills. In my opinion, only the relatively centrist yet reformist Progressive Republican ideas can do that.
There are two potential presidential candidates out there, I think, who embody these reformist impulses. On the left, representing the passions of Occupy Wall Street, is the centrist-populist Democratic Senator Jim Webb. On the right, representing the passions of the Tea Party, is the Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker, in his denunciations of and attacks on bloated government programs and unions in his home state, and Webb, in his appeals to middle-class growth and Jacksonian anti-elitism, embody the two areas of reform our country sorely needs right now. Unfortunately, I don’t think either is going to get their party’s nomination, nor do I think either will be the next President of the United States. But their influence over the debate is worth thinking of at least.
With luck, the reformist passions currently floating around the radical wings of the Right and Left will soon consolidate under a centrist progressive movement, capable of executing necessary reforms and uniting the country. Under such a regime, we would see a truly grand new era in American politics and history.
But I’m not holding my breath or anything.