Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Gerson’s heroic conservatism

Just a quick post to note that this Michael Gerson column (making an argument that I’ve seen before from him) appears to be a preview of his new book. If he’s right about the two predominant strands of American conservatism, then it’s an amalgam of tho ways of thinking that aren’t, strictly speaking, "conservative." I suppose that I don’t have to argue for the essential unconservatism of libertarianism, which subjects every relationship to the acid bath of interest.

But Roman Catholic social thought isn’t quite conservative either, especially in its "catholicity." (Just ask the ancient Romans.) At the same time, I do think that its emphasis on natural law (implying a created and rationally apprehensible order) and on subsidiarity (which offers a great deal to "civil society") make it the best candidate for a conservatizing foil to the promethean individualism expressed by libertarians and the promethean collectivism (a little too strong, but I can’t think of a better expression at the spur of the moment) of contemporary liberals.

By contrast, "genuine" conservatism must be local and--I know this will provoke--polytheistic. (The Romans had that right.)

Update: Mark Krikorian reads Gerson out of the conservative movement, set off in part by this WaPo story, which, I’m betting, is at least a little misleading.

Update #2: Answering Jonah G. requires more time than I have right now (as I’m between classes--moving from Aristotle to Livy--and then have a meeting and another class--Plato’s Republic; this semster is brutal). I’ll say only this for the moment: it’s the tension between classical liberalism and Christian (especially Catholic) social thought that gives contemporary American "conservatism" its peculiar flavor. Yes, liberals can also borrow from Catholic social thought, especially regarding the social welfare-style ends, but their unlimited secular statism can’t be justified on Christian/Catholic grounds.

Update #3: There’s more piling on over at The Corner, but I think Gerson would agree with David Freddoso’s point about CST, which lines up well with the Gerson/Bush "ownership society." Our friend RC2 weighs in, using one word--"subsidiarity"--that Gerson knows but doesn’t mention and another--"federalism"--that also seems to get short shrift from MG.

One interesting effort to deal with the tensions between (classical) liberalism and "Christendom" can be found in this initiative undertaken by our friends at ISI; this book, in particular, ought to be of interest.

Stated another way, Catholic and Christian social thinking can learn a thing or two from classical liberalism, especially about the (limited) roles of choice and markets, but everyone has to remember that what we’re talking about is a political economy that is in the service of households that ought to have ends other than wealth maximization.

Discussions - 20 Comments

Thanks for posting all this.

Interesting...If I was labeling the post I might make it: Gerson's Isothymic Conservativism.

"And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering."

"But they believe that the goal directing all our methods must be the common good."

"A Republican Party that does not offer a robust agenda on health care, education reform, climate change and economic empowerment will fade into irrelevance."

"But the moral stakes are even higher. What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all."

Human Goods Economic Evils might be an interesting book...but it is not as if the classical economists/classical liberals were not interested in moral aspects of Political Economy. John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill were all to a certain extent philosophers, economists, historians and political scientists. Is this particular discussion richer than the one that occured in Scotland and helped shape the modern world?

Lisa Schiffren at The Corner writes: When I read Gerson's piece yesterday, the phrase "bleeding heart conservatism" popped unbidden to the spot where "compassionate conservatism" used to be....

At the risk of sounding mean ... I think Gerson writes this stuff because it's what he knows. "Catholic social thought" is his idea of theoretical cover for a lot of warm and fuzzy ideas that all nice people embrace.

Sounds about right.

Gerson is right to this extent: for whatever reason - is there a reason? - some conservatives have turned mean. It is a dead end, politically.

You all just have to read the "ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII JUNE 20, 1888"

John Lewis, what is "isothymic"? OED doesn't have it and I am lost with that word.

some conservatives have turned mean

Isn't that just your way of observing that they have not embraced liberalism? Republicans have always been "mean" in the eyes of liberals.

Do we mean "mean" as in cheapskates, or the other kind as in cruel and nasty?

Well Kate the motto of the French Revolution was Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Isothymia is essentially the drive to be recognized as equal, or what some people might call bleeding heart liberalism. Other people might call it compassionate conservativism, crunchiness, Fraternity, Promethian Collectivism, some might call it being a decent human being. For Fukuyama it was an aspect of thymos. For Fukuyama liberalism or Democracy was the last form of government because it was uniquely capable of ballancing this Isothymia the desire to be viewed as equal, the desire to reach out the the "other", with Megalothymia the desire to be viewed as superior, a distinguishing self-love, something that seperates the shaft from the wheat.

Following Fukuyama one might say that this entire debate is simply one between Isothymia and Megalothymia.

To borrow from a thinker who was close to the French Revolution and its aftermath...Bastiat argued that Capitalism or Liberty is incompatible with notions of Equality and Fraternity. That essentially the market must reward productivity and punish idleness. Trying to foster equality or fraternity does dammage to liberty. Capitalism meanwhile dammages notions of equality by seperating us into groups of haves and have nots. Those concerned with the primacy of Fraternity, or culture or whatever word you wish to use to frame the question...those such as Daniel Bell and I suspect Michael Gerson/Joe Knippenburg/Steve Thomas are quick to point to the cultural contradictions of Capitalism. In a certain flippant light, this is all post-modernism is...a wholesale attack upon aspects of the Enlightenment, its Dismal Scientists, its notions of reason.

When Dr. Knippenburg frames the question in terms of Promethian individualism vs. Promethian collectivism...he might as well be saying Megalothymia vs. Isothymia.

Can Gerson really be serious about ideas when he characterizes those he disagrees with as "anti-government conservatives" and "anti-government extremists"? There is quite literally no such thing as a conservative who is anti-government. It takes a remarkably careless mind to fling such labels around as Gerson does.

Let's parse the conservative movement this way instead: On the one had there are economic conservatives, cultural conservatives, religious conservatives, etc. -- and on the other there are crackpots like Michael Gerson.

Now, Mikey. How do you like the way I've put the issue? Would you like to talk seriously about your little crackpot problem?

Kate - In using the word "mean" I meant insufficient attention to (1) the Preamble to the Constitution (" form a more perfect Union, establish justice. . .") and (2) the Christian idea of love. I don't expect conservatives to be liberals, but I do hope they will be conservatives, from whom I have learned much about the weaknesses of liberalism.

John Lewis - We should get reading!

I think Gerson is forgetting about another important part of Catholic social thought: humility--the humility that comes from the recognition of man's fallen nature and our constant struggle with sin. But that isn't only Gerson. There's a whole tradition of forgetting that in Catholic social thought. We must work to do what is right, but we also have to adjust our expectations in light of the fact that we are only God's servants and not God. The "heroes" Gerson longs for do not have perfect wisdom. And the "subjects" of their heroics (an interesting term in a democratic republic, isn't it?) do not have perfect virtue. And this is to say nothing of the limited virtue of the "heroes!" I heard him interviewed the other day (I think on Medved or Prager) and he struggled mightily to defend his position--not only against the host but against the callers. But I will say that I think he is coming from a good place and that the book--though probably deeply flawed--could be instructive to an open-minded conservative looking for what is missing from current conservative appeal or lack thereof. I think Steve is on to something there. What I mean to say is that he may have a better handle on what is ailing conservatives in terms of public perception than he has on what they could or should do to correct that.

Joe K.: please elaborate your point about genuine conservatism being "polytheistic", etc. I'm not following you here.

Monotheism is (or at least tends to be) universalistic or "catholic," not local. It also isn't related in any necessarily "organic" way to a local tradition, but often overturns or revolutionizes them. Monotheism is a revolutionary rupture.

If "genuine" conservatism has to develop as part of a local tradition, then we have many traditions growing up in many places, with no necessary or "natural" relationship between them--certainly not a hierarchy presided over by a One God. Instead, we have at the very least competing local gods.

Hence my crack about polytheism.

Joe - Is Pierre Manent relevant here, in tracing out your idea?

If "genuine" conservatism has to develop as part of a local tradition, then we have many traditions growing up in many places, with no necessary or "natural" relationship between them--

This is true, but it's a rather novel definition of "polytheism". A narrower but more accuate sense of the word is that it means the commingling of many different religions within one geographic region.

Of course that defintion, while accurate, is a bit awkard for the people at Ashbrook. Which is why it's exasperating that you persist in pretending to be conservatives.

Instead, we have at the very least competing local gods.

Which is exactly what we do have, if you observe the world around you.

Thank you, John Lewis and Steve, for the definitions.

Most of the people I know well are conservative (By self-definition and I don't know what John would call them.) and isothymic as all get out. Yet they desire a limited government for all Americans because they fear political (and religious) and economic freedoms being smothered by a well-intentioned government that turns its beneficiaries into serfs. They aren't "mean" at all in that antithesis of Christian love Steve points to. They worry that people become dependent on government and BECOME unable to help themselves. They do not have any problem with government helping those whose needs are so great, or who are so obscure, that private help is no help at all. Yet, the idea that such help ought to be local and not a federal issue, appeals around here. "What're the county social service agencies for?" and these are people who do volunteer work for those agencies. I can't believe this type of compassionate conservatism of my neighbors is so very local. Did I just fall into some isothymic neighborhood thirty years ago? (I am going to have to use that term for awhile until it becomes natural and I can forget about it in the ordinary way of things.)

Thank you Joe. I see where you're leading now. This is probably about the 10th time I've mentioned this and I'm starting to sound like a broken record (does anyone even remember what that sounds like anymore) but Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop is right on this point. The Archbishop is so universalistic in his approach to Christianizing the local Indian/Mexican people that he confuses his own particularistic preferences with the universal. And he neglects what is universal in the particular approach of his congregation to Christianity. It takes the simpler and more open love of his subordinate priest to make him come to terms with that higher truth. I guess I'm going to have to dig that book out and write about it.

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