M.

Make Haste Slowly

Richard Weaver, from his autobiographical essay “Up From Liberalism,” on the proper attitude towards social change:

I am disinclined to the view that whatever exists necessarily has a commission to go on existing. On the contrary, I have a strong tendency to side with the bottom dog, or to champion the potential against the actual if the former seems to have some reason behind it; and I am mindful of the saying that God takes delight in bringing great things out of small ones. To this extent, I am a reformer or even a subverter. But I feel that situations almost never present themselves in terms so simple. They usually appear in terms like these: We have before us a tremendous creation which is largely inscrutable. Some of the intermediate relationships of cause and effect we can grasp and manipulate, though with these our audacity often outruns good sense and we discover that in trying to achieve one balance we have upset two others.

 

There are, accordingly, two propositions which are hard to deny: We live in a universe which was given to us, in the sense that we did not create it; and, we don’t understand very much of it. In the figure once used by a philosopher, we are inhabitants of a fruitful and well-ordered island surrounded by an ocean of ontological mystery. It does not behoove us to presume very far in this situation. It is not a matter of affirming that whatever is, is right; it is a recognition that whatever is there is there with considerable force (inertia even being a respectable form of force) and in a network of relationships which we have only partly deciphered. Therefore, make haste slowly.

M.

McClanahan on the Southern Agrarians

I was just able to watch Brion McClanahan’s portion of the AERC panel on “Remembering the Interwar Right.” A few thoughts of my own.

A ) I have a certain sympathy for the South as McClanahan presents it, even though I’m not myself a southerner. One difficulty I have is that McClanahan has a tendency to romanticize the South more than even someone like Weaver (see here). I think McClanahan is in the position of defending what in modern society is indefensible – namely, the South – but I think sometimes he oversimplifies the South. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate his comments, it’s just an observation of some of his tendencies.

B ) I 100% agree that regionalism, be it southern, eastern, or midwestern, is badly needed in modern society. I think that each of the sections is losing its distinctiveness, and mass, nationalized society is preserving more or less the worst elements of each of these sections. The reason, for instance, that people can romanticize the South is because it had some definite virtues, but those virtues are being destroyed along with its vices. This is no less true of the other sections. As a midwesterner, I notice this as increasingly middle America attempts to be as cool as the coasts. It’s a real shame.

C ) I like his interpretation of Tucker Carlson’s comments, because I think that some of Carlson’s concerns are valid and I want a lot of the same things he wants. But, the problem is that if you can’t identify or articulate the problem correctly, your solution and proposals aren’t likely to be effective. I would level this same criticism at Dan McCarthy (as Donald Devine did here), although I think McCarthy has less of an excuse because he’s more widely read on conservatism than Carlson is.

D ) Here’s a link to some of Weaver’s comments on the South. What’s interesting to me is that Weaver has very strong sympathies for the South and the agrarians, but he also criticizes the South for not producing the philosophers needed to articulate their reason for being right, and also for attempting to use symbols that have outlived their usefulness.

Overall, I liked this talk. Agrarianism in one form or another plays a role in the philosophy of the best conservative writers (Weaver, Kirk, Nisbet, Scruton, etc.), but it’s not always southern. I think that Southern culture should remain, reassert itself, and improve itself by its own internal efforts, but I think that’s true of all the different cultures in the country. The worst thing that can happen is this bland, stultifying generic mass culture that reduces everything to either a transaction or virtue signal.

Update: I neglected to add this in my original comments, but McClanahan is spot on when he talks about the importance of “place.” Weaver said that “To be of a place, to reflect it in your speech and action and general bearing, to offer it as a kind of warranty that you will remain true of yourself – this is what it means to have character and personality. And without these things there is no individuality.”

People laugh at Russell Kirk for calling automobiles “mechanical Jacobins,” but increased mobility has really contributed to the decline of culture as people have become increasingly nomadic, simply picking up and moving for jobs or just for a change (which is different than moving to preserve freedom or culture). Of course, nobody can be totally against mobility, and becoming a Luddite is no solution, but we can acknowledge that there can be improper and disorganizing uses of technology.

C.

Casey on Kirk and Burke

Having just committed the libertarian faux pas of publishing a favorable review of a Russell Kirk book, now might be a good time to consider some things that Gerard Casey has written about Kirk and his intellectual muse, Edmund Burke. In Freedom’s Progress, Casey writes,

The basic principles of conservatism were laid out in various of his writings by Russell Kirk… In The Politics of Prudence, we are presented with 10 principles: 1. the moral order is enduring – human nature is a constant and moral truths are permanent; 2. conservatives adhere to custom, convention and continuity; 3. conservatives believe in prescription, that which has been established by immemorial usage; 4. conservatives are guided by the principle of prudence; 5. conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety – equality before the law levels all ranks – in all other respects inequality is the norm; 6. conservative are chastened by their principle of of imperfectibility – no perfect social order is attainable, utopias are not in sight and are not to be sought; 7. freedom and property are closely linked; 8. conservatives uphold voluntary community and oppose involuntary collectivism; 9. conservatives see the need for prudent restraints on power and on human passions; and 10. conservatives understand that permanence and change must be recognised and reconciled.

 

Libertarians may adhere to none, some, or all of these principles. This libertarian: recognises an enduring moral order and the constancy of human nature; grants the heuristic and presumptive value of custom, convention, continuity and prescription; whole-heartedly recognises and values the differences that make a difference; ruefully recognises (in others) and confesses (in himself) human imperfectibility, and neither expects nor seeks the fantasy of a utopia, for here we have no abiding city; willingly grants – indeed, insists upon – the close connection between freedom and property; rejects involuntary collectivism and welcomes the creation and sustaining of voluntary communities; recognises prudence as the first of the cardinal virtues, sees restraint as a form of social capital and, as such, the foundation of the moral individual, civil society and political order; and is happy to seek a balance between permanence and change.

Regarding Burke, Casey adds,

Edmund Burke thought that manners mattered more than law and even more than morals, inasmuch as both law and morals in large measure depend upon manners. [Burke wrote] “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

 

We do not produce and maintain our manners primarily by some process of detached reason. They arise naturally from social relations. Such judgment as they embody is a kind of pre-reflective judgment, what Burke calls ‘prejudice.’ Manners, as prejudices, allow us to act swiftly and surely and rightly without the need for agonised reflection and reasoning. At the root of manners is the notion of restraint, of limitation, of delayed gratification, and its produce is a kind of social capital, just as the product of fiscal delayed gratification and restraint is economic capital. Burke contrasts this form of ordered liberty with mere license, which is the freedom to do whatever one wants to do without regard to circumstances.”

He adds,

I believe that a civilized existence requires both freedom and order; that just as a sound economy requires capital which is produced by saving and delayed gratification: “the essential mechanism of societal preservation is not inspiration but restraint.” [David Mamet] Freedom without order is like a sudden explosive release of energy, pointless and destructive; order without freedom is like the body in the library, a lifeless corpse. Freedom and order together are necessary to produce a living, vital society.

 

…When manners decline as the result of cultural decay, then the law (or rather legislation) rushes in to fill the vacuum. Matters that in a culturally rich society are dealt with by informal sanctions, such as speech that is intended to be crude, insulting and hurtful, now have to be overtly regulated by laws with consequent intrusions upon our liberty. But the law is a blunt and crude instrument and such micro-regulation is both ineffective and stifling. Man does not live by legislation alone. A society replete with minute and detailed legislation is a society whose stock of social capital has declined and is declining. This, I suggest, is an accurate account of many contemporary Western societies. Whether these societies can replenish their social capital is a matter for conjecture. Some societies have done so in the the past – but others have not, and have perished.

It’s not uncommon for libertarians to scoff at conservatives and the concerns they raise about society, questions that Kirk, and Burke before him, addressed more articulately than most. But Casey, whose libertarian credentials are unassailable, offers good reasons for libertarians to consider the importance of the non-political, and even non-rational, elements of our life, without which libertarianism isn’t likely to last for very long.

S.

Sowell on Mill’s Conception of Freedom

Thinking over the ongoing intra-libertarian feud between right and left libertarians, I was reminded by this quote by Thomas Sowell regarding John Stuart Mill, who I think exemplifies the left-libertarian attitude:

“Mill’s On Liberty has often been seen – mistakenly – as a plea for greater freedom of all from government, when it was in fact a plea for differential exemption of the annointed from social criticism. That is, the annointed should judge and influence the benighted, but not vice-versa. Mill saw government in the England of his day as no longer a major threat to freedom. It was the social ‘tyranny of the majority’ and ‘the despotism of Custom’ that he opposed in On Liberty.

What he considered to be desirable was that individuals be free to do as they like ‘without detriment to their estimation’ in the eyes of others. Today, that is called being ‘nonjudgmental’ – and, very often in practice, it too is a principle applied selectively as between the annointed and the benighted.”

Granted, it would be difficult, to the point of impossibility, to identify a single cause that separates right and left libertarians. But, undoubtedly, one of the most prominent points of departure is this difference of opinion on the desirability of social pressure.

T.

The Art of Rhetoric

Libertarians complain a lot about people not being persuaded, but I wonder how much of that is due to libertarians not being persuasive. This essay is a really good look at rhetoric as an essential art in the process of argumentation.

“For the most obvious truth about rhetoric is that its object is the whole man. It presents its arguments first to the rational part of man, because rhetorical discourses, if they are honestly conceived, always have a basis in reasoning. Logical argument is the plot, as it were, of any speech or composition that is designed to persuade. Yet it is the very characterizing feature of rhetoric that it goes beyond this and appeals to other parts of man’s constitution, especially to his nature as a pathetic being, that is, a being feeling and suffering. A speech intended to persuade achieves little unless it takes into account how men are reacting subjectively to their hopes and fears and their special circumstances.”

Libertarians often treat their audiences almost with a sense of disdain, as if they’re put out that the masses are holding on to ideas that the libertarians have dialectically proven false. Weaver’s nod to rhetoric as the art of understanding the causes of your audience’s beliefs, and using that understanding to frame convincing arguments, is badly needed in libertarian argumentation.

A.

Against the “There oughta be a law” Crowd

In The Law, Frederic Bastiat talked about the tendency for socialists (which, by his definition, would include a large majority of Americans) to conflate government and society. Bastiat reminded his readers that just because someone says that he doesn’t want the state to do something doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want anyone to do it. 

Bastiat was right, of course, but he stopped short of an observation that Albert Jay Nock would later make: that society can not only do the things that the state does, but that relinquishing society’s roles to the state actually disempowers society. 

Nock wrote,

“It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power. There is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.”

Every time someone says “There ought to be a law” what they’re really saying is “Society, and all its individuals and institutions, should give up its power to the state.”