This week I found myself engaged in composing a reply to John Wright, a libertarian, who noticed my essay last week for its mention of Ayn Rand, and made serious criticisms of some of my premises.
Though incomplete, I’m posting my response this week. I am afraid John will feel despite all this that I did not exactly reply to his comments, but rather changed the subject, as it were, giving an account of traditionalist conservatism and why I think individual rights and liberties need to be constrained by practices that embody transcendent values. The reason is that conservative and libertarian concepts are quite different and so I frankly found it difficult to answer his comments on their own terms. I hope that he will notice that most of his points are alluded to somewhere or other.
Some of my regular readers may find my rehashing of “traditionalist” principles unnecessary, though it was a useful exercise for me. I think I became engaged in the task because I have some idea of where John is coming from. Also, he seems like a familiar and appealing type, the kind of smart guy brimming with ideas who you stay up having arguments with all night in college. That’s not something I get to do much these days.
In any case, since I try to provide a bit of “American heritage” every week, I’ll just share something brief with you before getting to my response.
When I was a child, my mother had a record called Spoon River Anthology, the soundtrack to a theatrical production based on the poetic work of the same title written by Edgar Lee Masters and published in 1915. (Unfortunately the record is out of print and not available on CD.) This week I re-listened to the work. As a child I didn’t understand the meaning of the poems, but the rough music and drama of the blank verse appealed to me, and the soundtrack had several beautiful songs as well. As you may know, Spoon River Anthology is a collection of epitaphs spoken by the dead in a small Illinois town around the turn of the century. The idea of the small Midwestern town it evokes is deeply poignant and touching.
However, I realized as I listened to the record that the work is extremely dark. Masters definitely has an agenda of debunking a sentimental view of small-town America. Its narrators speak of infidelity, abortion, suicide, vain lives spent in pointless labor, cruelty, bullying, racism, murder. Only a small proportion of the epitaphs are of a person who lived well and in death speaks with contentment about his or her life.
So I could see that American self-hatred goes way back. Or, rather, the observation of the human suffering that occurs beneath the veil of respectability and which religion, laws, and customs fail to prevent, may lead one to think we’d be better off without them. Of course small-town life has its underbelly, but the way Masters deconstructs it you might easily become persuaded that there was nothing important to save and cherish. Still, somehow an air of sweetness and nostalgia can be felt throughout the work.
In any case, as dark as Masters is, his language has a rhythm and power that makes it beautiful. He captures something of America in his poems. I’ll give you one of the dark ones and one of the bright ones.
SHE loved me. Oh! how she loved me!
I never had a chance to escape
From the day she first saw me.
But then after we were married I thought
She might prove her mortality and let me out.
Or she might divorce me.
But few die, none resign.
Then I ran away and was gone a year on a lark.
But she never complained. She said all would be well,
That I would return. And I did return.
I told her that while taking a row in a boat
I had been captured near Van Buren Street
By pirates on Lake Michigan,
And kept in chains, so I could not write her.
She cried and kissed me, and said it was cruel,
I then concluded our marriage
Was a divine dispensation
And could not be dissolved,
Except by death.
I was right.
I WENT to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.
* * * * * * *
Reply to John Wright
Thank you for your thoughtful and stimulating reply to my essay on American individualism. I want to say that it is delightful to hear that you love the United States, and for the right reasons! Not because I like hearing my country flattered but because it means that there remains some good to be appreciated by immigrants who come here – for the right reasons.
I’m also interested in your self-description as a “theist” libertarian. Are there many of those?
I have moved away from libertarianism for a number of years now but I have never gone back and argued for my changed views with libertarians, so your reply challenges me to articulate some basic positions.
Inevitably I find myself at times arguing against “liberalism” rather than libertarianism, but I think libertarianism is a type of liberalism (a political philosophy placing individual liberty and autonomy at the center of things), so I think the criticisms generally apply. I will use the term left-liberal if necessary to distinguish statist, coercive, socialist liberalism from libertarianism.
On national culture
First, my blog is based on my belief that the historic American nation is being destroyed by current policies and social trends and that the only way to resist this is to revive in Americans a sense of belonging to an actual people with shared language, history, ethnicity, and values. As a libertarian this idea may sound so strange, collectivist, and even evil that you may find we have nothing further to discuss, but it will have to suffice for me to say here that I understand the difference between a healthy degree of diversity and today’s situation, where the founding and majority population is being transformed into a tiny minority through mass immigration and enforced multiculturalism. (It is not accidental that this ethno-cultural transformation is accompanied by the growth in collectivist policies.)
Therefore, when I talk about national culture I am talking about something enormously important, the whole matrix of shared language, understandings, and behaviors of a single nation, the air we breathe and the texture of our life, and not just holidays and symbols. If you do not consider culture an important part of your identity or America’s, what I say may not make sense.
Now, what I’m calling “traditionalism” is a particular and relatively recent articulation of conservatism that needs to be clearly identified. I draw on Lawrence Auster’s terminology here (see the links below) though what I present here is simply my own understanding. It’s important to note, though, that conservatism is not a systematic philosophy (like Objectivism – and I am not saying you’re an Objectivist), and there are plenty of people with the same views who don’t depend on this terminology.
The basic idea of traditionalism is that there is a transcendent order to existence and that particular societies and cultures align themselves with that order, each in its own particular and historically situated way. The practices and institutions of a society that relate to that higher order comprise its “traditions.” These are the things conservatism seeks to “conserve.” For example, the idea of God or the divine is something universal which is expressed in different ways in, say, Anglican Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism. Or, the division of humanity into men and women with the potentiality for physical and spiritual union and reproduction, is a universal fact realized in the institution of marriage, which varies greatly by culture. I’m not saying all forms are equally true or good. I am saying the universal needs to be concretized and symbolized in some form in human life.
Traditionalism is opposed to liberalism and libertarianism because it recognizes values that are higher than, or transcend, the individual; though I would also say it recognizes transcendent grounds for certain timeless individual rights. The important point to note here is that the “liberalism” which traditionalism opposes is a kind of unspoken, contemporary, extreme version of classical liberalism with its emphasis on freedom and choice. Modern liberalism makes liberal autonomy the central, ruling principle of society. It places tolerance and nondiscrimination over all other values. And it dominates all our major institutions today, and is believed in even by most people who call themselves “conservatives,” who might better be called, in Mark Richardson’s terminology, “right-liberals.” I think that libertarianism is a variety, then, of liberalism, though it makes a very important distinction between achieving autonomy through coercing people, and doing it by freeing them from coercion. I’m not sure I succeed in keeping this distinction in mind adequately in what I’ve written here, so you may note some inconsistencies.
On traditional morality
Although I didn’t state in my essay what I mean by “traditional morality,” I am not talking about following tradition just because it’s tradition; I am talking about respecting traditional answers to questions about how to order our lives and being reluctant to break with those traditions without very good reason. I take it for granted a Western reader has some sense of what traditional Western morality calls for – think about the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule or Christian marriage; think also about the Protestant work ethic and American individualism. I think further that this moral ethos has an organic unity and coherence, and can’t be reduced to a mere collection of unrelated restrictions and freedoms. Nor is it sustained primarily by governmental coercion.
On individual liberty and its social context
Now, you see America’s greatness as resting in its enshrinement of principles of individual liberty in its government. And you see leftist collectivist values as being the enemy of that freedom. I have no disagreement with the sense of what you’re saying. We in the West, at least, see the right to make our own choices in our lives as important. We are against slavery, forced marriage, and having our job chosen by the State. In America of course there is strong tradition of property rights, free enterprise, gun ownership, and so forth which is valued by libertarians and conservatives alike.
Where I disagree is with the idea that a concept of individual liberty is a sufficient principle on which to form and sustain a society. I see liberty as a derivative or secondary value. If you are alone on a desert island you have infinite liberty but not much you can do with it. As soon as other human beings enter the picture, constraints to choice appear as one enters into relationships with those people. Most of these have nothing to do with government. But even this image is inadequate because we are actually born as social animals, raised by particular parents in a particular place with a particular culture, and we spend most of our lives embedded in a society and culture. Our early relationships, experiences, and education are not chosen at all. Probably you will stress the importance of the voluntary nature of our social relationships and I will not disagree; I just think that the mere right to start or terminate relationships is only a small aspect of the complexity of our social lives.
Anyway, for argument’s sake let’s suppose that there are more “individualistic” and more “collectivist” cultures, and that Anglo-American culture grants a high degree of (certain types of) freedom and autonomy within this web of social relationships. Let’s even judge that such a culture is superior to a more collectivist culture. I would still agree with you, though I would add the disclaimer, “at least for us,” because I am familiar enough with the variety and depth of human culture to know how shallow it is to say, for example, that Japanese people “lack individuality.”
Even if all this is granted, I would insist that individual liberty is not an essence or a “thing” of which more is better. It’s a relative concept; the freedom exists within an actual social framework and (here’s where you may disagree) the value of the freedom comes from its enabling a person to do something good with that freedom. So, I would say the freedom to drink alcohol, for instance – forbidden in Islam – is justified in that we recognize good, and socially important, uses for alcohol (wine with our dinner, “social lubricant” for our celebrations) even though abuse of alcohol also exists. So here we may be able to successfully apply your principle of “the rights of the individual to go about his or her business peaceably so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others,” and leave alcohol use unregulated except with things like drunk driving. On the other hand, with a dangerous drug like PCP there is no discernible benefit to individuals or society and I don’t see that making it illegal is a particular infringement of individual freedom. Maybe there should be laws about such things and maybe there shouldn’t but I find it odd that libertarians become passionate about the “right to” do things that are patently harmful.
With something like marriage things are more involved. Here I believe the liberal understanding of marriage as a voluntary arrangement between two autonomous individuals for their mutual benefit strips marriage of its special meaning and value. Marriage (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) is a transcendent relationship based on the mystical union of one man and one woman. This is expressed, for instance, in the passage from Genesis (whether it’s truth or poetry) which says: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply….” Do you see how this concept of marriage has a reality of its own? Do you see that it needs to be accepted by the whole society, at least publicly, for it to be realizable in a meaningful way? Particularly since fundamental issues of reproduction and childrearing are involved? Do you see that it cannot coexist with, say, Muslim polygamy in the same society? I think it also cannot coexist with gay marriage. I won’t try to demonstrate that here. I am not actually morbidly preoccupied with gay marriage; I talk about marriage here because it’s an example of an institution which I think cannot be upheld purely on libertarian principles.
This all kind of indirectly relates to the point in my article about “families, schools, and communities.” These may be partly formed by voluntary association but they are also formed according to transcendent standards. So, again giving the example of marriage, if we agree that a traditional heterosexual married household is, other things being equal, the best environment for a child to grow up in, then gay households deprive the children who grow up in them of that environment.
I will also add that it’s a characteristically conservative insight to realize that the acceptance of “transcendent” standards – ideals or categories that transcend individual instances – is not invalidated by individual exceptions, or indeed the fact that exceptions are inherent and inevitable.
Can liberalism – or libertarianism – protect us from non-liberal enemies? The case of Islam
My own move to traditionalism did not occur because there were individual behaviors such as homosexuality or terrible modern art that I “don’t like,” but because I began to see that my civilization is headed for extinction and that saving it requires the (re)establishment of standards that will inevitably restrict some such individual freedoms. For me, the September 11 terror attacks were a turning point.
Why is it that after 9/11 mass immigration of Muslims to the United States has continued and even increased even though it subjects the rest of us to significant danger as well as discomfort? The reason is that our society is now a liberal society. It sees all people as individuals with equal rights and thus refuses to discriminate based on collective assumptions about Muslims. (If you think Islam isn’t a mortal threat to Western civilization, please refer to the site Jihad Watch.)
Now, libertarians certainly have grounds to oppose some aspects of Islam, like the subjugation of women, the prohibition on charging interest, the persecution of homosexuals, and the treatment of non-Muslims as second-class citizens. They can cite the infringement of individual liberty and they can oppose Left-liberal policies that empower Islam, such as granting public money to Muslim organizations or requiring employers to accommodate Islamic prayer practices.
However, even if libertarianism were to become a powerful force in American society, I don’t think it is enough. The racial, ethnic, and religious conquest of America will continue. Again, this topic is too large to do any justice here, but a short way of expressing the problem is to say that the America you and I would like to live in – America of small government, individual privacy, the reward of enterprise and achievement, freedom of speech and worship – is not primarily sustained by abstract libertarian principles but by a living nation and people whose way of life sustains such liberties. Or, to put it another way, libertarian values will never be accepted by a populace that is not majority white “Anglo” and Judeo-Christian in heritage. Never! This is not something I’ll try to prove, but the evidence overwhelmingly points in that direction. I am afraid that libertarians will continue to make sophisticated arguments for a variety of rights while their actual societies become dangerous, impoverished, and chaotic.
Going beyond self-defense: the structures and constraints of a healthy society
It is when confronted by intractable problems like this, and I’d be delighted to be shown that I’m wrong, that the libertarian may turn toward non-liberal principles in the hope he can save something of his civilization. He may begin to think that what he is defending is his people, not a set of principles, valuable as those principles may be. He may realize, as I do, that he’d rather live among his people even if they adopt odious policies like national health care, than among alien peoples under a libertarian, non-intrusive regime. Policies can be changed; people go extinct forever.
And it turns out that preserving a people requires holding certain values that are higher than individual choice. (I don’t mean they crush individual choice.) Marriage, education, standards of dress, work ethic, gender roles, language, shared historical memories, literature, sports, festivals, education, manners, ethics…the list is endless. It is this shared culture, and the actual living, biological people making up a country, that provide the very foundation of human existence. And it is the collapse of these standards that has led to what I am sure you will recognize, the “trash culture” of America in the 21st century, with laziness, sloppiness, irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and the like more and more enshrined in our culture. (So I’m not just blaming things on immigrants, most of whom are more traditionalist than we are!) This is what I was getting at in criticizing “the right to be ‘different,’ to dress funny, to create ugly or incomprehensible art and be praised for it, to be a child at age 30,” etc.
As a result – as I realized – it’s not enough just to defend ourselves against Islam, or otherwise adopt particular policies to protect our way of life, such as restricting immigration, cracking down on crime, you name it. There needs to be an us that we are trying to protect. And that is the exact opposite of border-free liberal universalism.
For instance (I don’t know how to say this without being blunt), if white Westerners, having gained sexual freedom and access to birth control and abortion, stop having children at replacement rate, they eventually will go extinct, right? Many people will say this is a matter of complete indifference to them, but I’ve realized it’s not to me. And that leads one to reconsider liberal views on birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, gay marriage, and even liberal childrearing practices, all of which are leading to the group that holds that value going extinct and being replaced by other groups that don’t. (Without mass immigration, of course, the problem would not be this urgent; but it seems to me by and large, that either traditional marriage and childrearing is right and good and should be expected of most people, or it’s not and we should just dismantle our entire system in favor of a Brave New World sort of state rearing of children, which is what we’re heading for.)
To say that people are simply exercising their choice here and that if they choose to destroy themselves then at least they got to enjoy their precious freedom, begs the question concerning what traditionalists like myself are trying to do. We are trying to persuade people that the situation is wrong and organize a response to it.
Emphasis on values, not policy
You may at this point think I’m fantasizing about a coercive Nazi-like regime that regiments the lives of its citizens. I’m not. I probably oppose government interference with family, private enterprise, education, and so forth as much as you do. And I certainly oppose what you call collective rights. Individuals should be equal as individuals before the law. But as I said, individual rights exist within a particular social order, which is maintained not primarily by government coercion, but by informal enforcement of standards that are actually believed in by the people who enforce them. This is as it has always been – were English-speaking societies really so horribly unfree prior to, say, the 1960s? (Another useful concept is that of a majority culture – minorities have the same individual rights as everyone but do not have a collective right to disrupt the majority culture.)
As for policymaking, I confess this is an undeveloped area in my thought. I grew up, as you probably did, in basically prosperous, secure community and I had the much the same freedom in social, sexual, and religious matters that I think young people do today. Instinctively, I have no particular desire to interfere with people’s lives or get the government to do so. While there are areas (especially immigration) where I have clear ideas about laws and policies, I think for traditionalists the primary agenda consist mainly of resisting the current trends. Examples are: opposing mass immigration; opposing legal and informal preferences for ethnic groups; opposing bilingual education; taking needed anti-terror measures within our borders; opposing the further legal dismantling of social, sexual, academic and other standards. Apart from that, we are too few in number to have any ability to limit the freedom of others. Regardless of whether our program can succeed politically some day or whether we become a harried minority mainly concerned with survival in a dangerous, chaotic world, we are right now concerned with articulating our principles and with organizing.
Policy does need to be discussed. However, I disagree with the assumption that traditionalist conservatives are the same as the Left in wanting to use government to “restrict freedoms.”
On the idea of “liberal autonomy” and libertarianism
On a smaller point, you’re correct that I grouped different, or even contradictory, types of phenomena that I object to and categorized them all as social changes being forced upon “us,” traditionalist or conservative Americans. I should have been more precise. However, there was a reason for grouping them together, which is that they all are instances of a liberal society trying to expand individual “autonomy.” In the case of the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are compelled to provide physical accommodation to handicapped people so as to make the physical handicap irrelevant to work performance. In the case of gay marriage, social practices are reorganized to make gender irrelevant to marriage. To a libertarian, the distinction between restricting freedoms by compelling actions or expenditures, and “expanding” a right by removing legal prohibitions to an action, is important. From a conservative perspective I’m not sure the two cases are so different. It seems evident that serious compulsion takes place in allowing gay marriage as well, though it may not be material. We have to stop talking about “husbands” and “wives,” we have to start teaching elementary school children about the normalcy of homosexuality whether we accept it or not, we have to let gay couples enter dance contests and adopt children and conceive children outside of the “marriage,” and so on. (Anyway, the compulsion certainly is material in the case of health care benefits, and the ever-present threat of lawsuits.)
I was, and am, honestly trying to grapple with the idea of liberal autonomy and how it relates to or is different from libertarian autonomy. Is Communism a form of liberalism or collectivism? It seems like a form of collectivism, but Engels did write about “freeing” the individual worker from material constraints to his desires, much as today’s liberal autonomy theory seems to do.
Second question: can libertarianism give us a vision of the true, good, and beautiful that we need in our public and private lives? Can a libertarian account of freedom fulfill the requirements I discuss here for protecting our society from a totalitarian religious ideology? I think not, but there are those who argue otherwise. Rand’s philosophy does give accounts of aesthetics, romantic love, etc. but I think misses some essentials. Try to imagine one of Howard Roark’s buildings. Could it possibly be as beautiful as a European cathedral or even a high-rise building in New York City build in the 1920s? If not, why not? And where are children and families in Rand’s philosophy?
(I think Rand tries to derive her transcendent values from the objective, biological nature of man; but I think this attempt fails. Other libertarians like Nozick seem to be basically using liberal ideas of freedom and equality. Nozick, like you, states right off “individuals have rights.” Where do the rights come from?)
Anyway, after this long journey I arrive at a couple of your views, that the powerlessness someone like me (or you) feels in the current climate has nothing to do with too much individualism, and that ultimately universal, individual rights and freedoms are the bottom line, regardless of consequences.
I agree that to complain of too much or too little “individualism” is not to make a very meaningful statement. So what I’d like to say is just that the instances of what Rick Darby, in the comments last week, called “micro-individualism” – things like body-piercing or other expressions of “decadent” individualism – are a sign of the collapse of standards, and should be criticized, though they’re in no sense the root of the problem.
I’ve tried to give an account, not so much of individualism or libertarianism, but of an alternative worldview in which a proper individualism can reside. To further comment on your libertarian philosophy, I’d have to know more about how you think the absolute individual rights you value – which exist regardless of consequences, a radical statement! – are justified, where they come from, and what their limits are. Meanwhile, I do think traditionalists can ally themselves with libertarians on a number of important particular issues, some of which I’ve mentioned here.
Again, thank you for commenting and sending your readers my way.
Links on Traditionalist Conservatism
I recommend the following pieces which come to mind as expressing the ideas of “conservatism,” “traditionalism,” “transcendence,” and the problem of American national identity.
Ten Conservative Principles
What is Conservatism?
Discovering Traditionalism–And Defining The Liberalism It Opposes
What Is Transcendence, And Why Does It Matter?
America No Longer Exists
What is the Order of Being?
What is European America?
Response to Reader Who Denies That Christianity Has Contributed Anything to the West
Fixing the Founding
The Tyranny of Liberalism
More on Liberal Tyranny