More Important than the Right to Life

April 25, 2010

During the Bush years, liberal white Americans seemed to live in constant anger, sincerely felt, over the frustration and humiliation of living under a president they despised who was carrying out a war they hated. At the same time, it was becoming apparent to some people of a more conservative bent (most of whom at had initially supported that president and that war) that despite individual victories for their side the country as a whole was continuing to drift to the left. Now that we have a left-wing president and a Democratic majority in Congress, that drift has turned into a series of huge tectonic jolts. Ironically, the open display on the part of many Democrats and ethnic interest groups of an unlimited willingness to destroy whatever remains of the traditional social order has energized many conservatives to resist this destruction. In this sense it is an exciting time to inhabit the right end of the spectrum. Sooner or later, though, conservatives will see that their energy and excitement will not be able to reverse the leftward movement in the long term.

One theoretical reason for the ineffectiveness of today’s conservatism is its failure to oppose liberal principles. Liberalism as it exists today demands that every inequality between men and women, whites and minorities, citizens and foreigners, Christians and Muslims, wealthy and poor, be eradicated; for this it will use any means at hand, including legal coercion, mass immigration, and redistribution of wealth. Republicans, and intellectual conservatives, oppose this coercion and redistribution in the context of individual issues, but are rarely willing to argue for social policies that affirm and reinforce certain types of inequality. Nor are they willing to defend their own society as having a particular character, viz., to affirm that the United States is essentially an English-speaking, white, Christian civilization, an extraordinarily obvious fact that has been deleted from our collective memory (or turned into our deepest shame). Their conservatism is limited; they are essentially liberal in their core beliefs. We are left unable to take the most basic steps to protect our security, prosperity, and freedom – and we keep moving to the left.

We need to learn to articulate non-liberal principles and say and defend them until they are once more current in our society. A non-liberal principle, it seems to me, is one that affirms or justifies a non-egalitarian social institution or practice in terms of eternal or transcendent truths. “Men and women are naturally different,” “Islam mandates eternal war against unbelievers” “the different racial groups differ in average capacities of various types,” and the like are non-liberal facts; non-liberal principles which guide, say, the institution of marriage, immigration policy, or educational practices are based on the recognition of such facts. How many conservatives are ready to do this intellectual work?

Russell Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader contains a section called “Critical Conservatism” which gives some samples of how this intellectual work might proceed. One is the 1915 essay “Property and Law” by Paul Elmer More, from which I posted a quote last week. This essay is an excellent illustration of what it means to articulate a non-liberal principle. It starts with More’s expressed concern that during a “long strike in the mines of Colorado, with violence on both sides and bitter recriminations,” no word was expressed by the mine owners and conservative press on behalf of property rights. Rather, they argued for their side in terms of “the inalienable right of every American citizen to work without interference” (as John D. Rockefeller put it; p. 436). That is, they argued in terms of liberal equality, rather than defending the principle of private property, which inherently means the acceptance of inequality.

Why, faced with violent strikes and militant socialist rhetoric comparing mine owners to murderers, was no defense made of property rights? More traces the undermining of the idea of property rights to Rousseau, who saw them as originally having been created by a class of men who, having used their superior abilities to acquire possessions, protected those possessions from the masses by passing laws in defense of property. Rousseau observed that in this way “property is the basis of civilization” (p. 440). With the establishment of property, the originally small natural differences between individuals were magnified into the enormous ones observable in modern civilization. More acknowledges that there is truth in what Rousseau says, but denies that doing away with property rights can lead to general happiness:

It is a fact that property has been the basis of civilization, and that with property there has come a change from natural inequality to what is assumed to be unnatural injustice. But it is not a fact that barbarism is in general a state of innocence and happiness. (p. 438)

More challenges head-on the basic premises of the socialism:

Socialism rests on two assumptions. First, that community of ownership will, for practical purposes, eliminate the greed and injustice of civilized life. This I deny, believing it to be demonstrably false in view of the present nature of most men, and, I might add, in view of the notorious quarrelsomeness of the socialists among themselves. Secondly, that under community of control the material productivity of society will not be seriously diminished. This question I leave to the economists, though here too it would appear to follow demonstrably from the nature of man that the capacity to manage and the readiness to be managed are necessary to efficient production. (p. 440)

More also denies that socialism is based on scientific principles, or as Marxism put it, the “economic interpretation of history.”

…the real strength of socialism, the force that some think is driving us along the edge of revolution, is in no sense a reasoned conviction that public ownership is better than private ownership, but rather a profound emotional protest against the inequalities of ownership. (p. 441)

He then states his anti-Marxist, conservative principle in refreshingly bold terms: “To the civilized man the rights of property are more important than the right to life.” (p. 442)

The reader who does not find the truth of this statement to be obvious should “read the whole thing,” as they say, which includes a discussion of Roman law that I could not completely follow. But the basic idea is clear enough. He does not mean that property is more important than life, in the sense that if I am starving to death I should choose to die rather than steal an apple from my wealthy neighbor’s orchard. He means that one of the main functions of the legal system of a civilized society must be to keep property secure, even though, life and human nature being what they are, there will inevitably occur large and small injustices, and even loss of life from time to time, under any such system. Despite this, he insists, “it is better that legal robbery should exist along with the maintenance of law, than that legal robbery should be suppressed at the expense of law” (p. 445). In closing, he suggests that the Church and the University have generally been have always been “strongly reactionary against any innovations which threaten the entrenched rights of property” because they understood that the spiritual and intellectual vocations that they supported depended upon the security of property. (He did not anticipate the left-wing universities and liberal churches of today!). “[I]f property is secure, it may be the means to an end, whereas if it is insecure it will be the end itself” (p. 450).

More’s essay does not completely fit with the current situation, since socialism, in the sense of a movement for communal ownership of the means of production by workers, is not the dominant ideology today (which is why it is not very effective to call Obama a “socialist,” although it is true in a moral sense). Property rights are still sometimes violated by violent demonstrations, but more often by taxation and regulation of how property may be used – say, anti-discrimination laws, or the ongoing government takeover of the practice of medicine. But the broader truth of what he says has not changed at all. Indeed, it seems to me that the wedding of jealously-guarded personal freedom with firmly-secured property rights is part of the essence of traditional American (or Anglosphere) society.

Other conservative principles, similarly, express the idea that in a civilized society, the whole is in some sense more important than the individual parts, or the transcendent more important than the particular. As a former libertarian, I hate to admit this, but it is true. For instance, that the security of the country is more important than the comfort of the individual. That the preservation of the family is more important than personal sexual fulfillment. Or that the majority culture is more important than any minority sub-culture. One can always cite egregious counter-examples that seem to prove these principles untrue, but to believe them thus refuted is to confuse individual exceptions with rules of general conduct.

A propos of the discussion of property, I was interested to read in a biography of Thomas Jefferson about the public response to his impending bankruptcy in the last year of his life:

At the opening of the year 1826, the last of his life, Jefferson’s financial embarrassments threatened to drive him into bankruptcy and the loss of his estate. In despair he turned to the Virginia Legislature, asking permission to sell part of his property by lottery. “If it can be yielded,” he wrote to a friend in the legislature, “I can save the house of Monticello and a farm adjoining to end my days in and bury my bones. His countrymen came forward with voluntary subscriptions to save his estate. New York contributed eight thousand five hundred dollars, Philadelphia five thousand dollars, Baltimore three thousand dollars. The project of the lottery was suspended, and the immediate demands were met….The aged statesman was fortunately left to end his days under the happy delusion that this “pure and unsolicited offering of love” by his fellow countrymen would suffice not only to pay off all his debts but to leave his dependants in ease at Monticello. (David Muzzey, Thomas Jefferson, p. 303)

What is of interest to the present discussion is not Jefferson’s unfortunate insolvency at the end of his life, but that the American people found it desirable that the property of one of our great statesmen be kept intact, although this would bring no material gain to any of them as individuals. They recognized its spiritual importance to us (and the value of giving a living president the dignity of remaining there), as a symbol of our identity and history. They did not hold rights to it as property, but they knew that as a symbol of the nation it belonged, in a sense, to every American. This is why, for similar reasons, the destruction of the World Trade Towers was in reality an attack on all American people, and not just those who owned or happened to be in the towers that day. Materialists do not see this. They would rather that the British royal family’s property be taken away from them and redistributed among the people; they would rather that a cathedral be made into a homeless shelter.

The spiritual happiness of a civilized people is indeed dependent on property rights. The transcendent is more important than the particular, but is realized, on this earth at least, only through the particular. If conservatives, traditionalists, and other committed patriots can seize on these truths and make them their own, things may begin to turn in their favor again.


Russell Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
David Muzzey, Thomas Jefferson, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918.

The Paradox

April 18, 2010 is in accordance with the law of human nature that the sure way to foster the spirit of materialism is to unsettle the material basis of social life. Manifestly, the mind will be free to enlarge itself in immaterial interests only when that material basis is secure, and without a certain degree of such security a man must be anxious over material things and preponderantly concerned with them. And, manifestly, if this security is dependent on the rights of property, and these rights are denied or belittled in the name of some impossible ideal, it follows that the demands of intellectual leisure will be regarded as abnormal and anti-social, and that he who turns to the still and quiet life will be despised as a drone, if not hated as an enemy of the serious part of the community. There is something at once comical and vicious in the spectacle of those men of property who take advantage of their leisure to dream out vast benevolent schemes which would render their own self-satisfied career impossible.

– Paul Elmer More

The complete essay is here.

Post-1880 Cliches on Immigration – Still With Us

April 13, 2010

An examination of my copy of Russell Blankenship’s 1937 textbook American Literature reveals that exaggerated veneration of immigrants is not a new phenomenon in America. It was apparently common among liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, and, like today, promoted especially earnestly by those who were themselves immigrants or from recent immigrant stock. Although it is not true that we are a “land of immigrants  – even Americans with significant post-1880s European immigrant ancestry can probably trace their ancestors’ presence here at least a century – mass immigration has taken place throughout enough of our history to have become planted in our consciousness as a normal thing.

For instance, consider this stanza from “Scum o’ the Earth,” by Robert Haven Shauffler (1879-1964), born to American parents in Austria. He clearly felt a moral burden in belonging to the host nation to a diverse mass of European immigrants:

Countrymen, bend and invoke
Mercy for us blasphemers,
For that we spat on these marvelous folk,
Nations of darers and dreamers,
Scions of singers and seers,
Our peers, and more than our peers.
“Rabble and refuse”, we name them
And “scum o’ the earth”, to shame them.
Mercy for us of the few, young years,
Of the culture so callow and crude,
Of the hands so grasping and rude,
The lips so ready for sneers
At the sons of our ancient more-than-peers.
Mercy for us who dare despise
Men in whose loins our Homer lies;
Mothers of men who shall bring to us
The glory of Titian, the grandeur of Huss;
Children in whose frail arms shall rest
Prophets and singers and saints of the West.
Newcomers all from the eastern seas,
Help us incarnate dreams like these.
Forget, and forgive, that we did you wrong.
Help us to father a nation, strong
In the comradeship of an equal birth,
In the wealth of the richest bloods of earth.

The sentiment draws one in. But wait a minute! Because people who came to America for a better life (i.e., to make money) experience poor treatment from some of the natives, the entire nation is guilty and can only purge its guilt through the forgiveness of those same immigrants, and taking them and their stock into the national body?

Wouldn’t this make one want to reconsider inviting the immigrants at all?

Or this passage by Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959), who arrived from France in his twenties:

We have given up our native speech; the picturesque garb of ancient villages has been discarded; titles and dynastic allegiance have been left, as undesirable, at the gateway of Ellis Island, and our very habits of thought have undergone a radical change. But do you believe that we have dropped like a burden all the immemorial traditions of our home lands? We have not, and it would be a thousand pities if we had. For the primal glory of the American spirit is that it is a blend of all subnationalities under the Stars and Stripes….Let us pool our ancestors, let us all be heirs to all! The greatest privilege is just that blending of traditions! I feel now as if my two grandfathers had bravely fought against each other at Gettysburg; I know it was partly for me that Washington displayed his quiet heroism and his serene wisdom.

It is heartening to read of Guérard’s whole-hearted identification with the entire American tradition, and when he simultaneously asserts that he and other immigrants assuredly do not cast away their native traditions when they become American citizens, he is only speaking a truth that should be, but often is not at all, obvious to Americans. But then he, an educated Frenchman, was eminently capable of assimilating himself to his new country. It should not be assumed that the same is true of our immigrants today. The notion of America as a giant blending of traditions felt good to him, and to many Americans, but if it is nothing but a blending then it is not a nation at all, and indeed the people with the deepest roots there are precisely those whose particular way of life must be sacrificed to the great blending project.

Immigration is inherently a traumatic experience. It requires the immigrant, not, indeed, to obliterate his past and his identity, but to give up forever residence in his native land to live among people who will never fully understand who he is, and to see his children grow up outside of that land and culture. It also requires the people of the land receiving the immigrant to make a myriad of efforts, large and small, to understand him and take care of his needs. The burden of the transition is by no means felt by the immigrant alone.

A normal, healthy country should not take in more than a very small number of immigrants from year to year. Nor, in view of the profound sacrifice which every immigrant must make to properly adjust to his new society, should average people all over the world be encouraged to emigrate. An immigrant should be that rare person who is actually prepared to do better in a foreign society that he could in his own. He should probably come from a society racially and culturally akin to the one he wishes to join. (It should go without saying that he should not expect to find a transplanted colony from his own society in the new country.) A normal, healthy country cultivates its own doctors, gas station owners, gardeners, meat packers, and athletes; it does not rely on immigrants to fill these roles. Foreign languages should be learned for purposes of trade and travel. Foreign visitors, workers, and students should be expected to return home after completing their business in their host country.

These facts should be so obvious as to require no argument or justification. And they are, in every country outside of Europe and America. Are we ever going to get back to common sense on this matter so we can once again experience a little control over our destiny?

Happy Easter!

April 5, 2010

I hope you had a good one. Spring is always wonderful, isn’t it? I will try to have something posted by the end of this work week.