Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Published in Political Philosophy

Political Philosophy

The Catholic Pendulum Swings

Intellectual Conservative has posted my latest article, The Catholic Pendulum Swings.

The war between U.S. Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over Obamacare's abortion, sterilization and contraceptive mandate has been well publicized and was to be expected. Democrats, including Catholic Democrats, have openly and notoriously held policy positions with regard to these sexual issues which run directly counter to Catholic social teaching. That the bishops believed Obama would exempt religious institutions from submission to such regulations exposed profound naivety, but the ideological tension and potential for conflict was apparent to all.

The bishops' recent stance against Rep. Paul Ryan's budget in the House likely took many by surprise. The Church would seem to a casual observer to fit hand in glove with the Republican Party platform - primarily because the media usually only highlights the Church's position on a single issue: abortion. But those more intimately aware of the Church's hierarchy will notice a plethora of self-identifying blue-collar, union-supporting Democrats among the nation's Catholic leaders. These are Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry Catholics, absent the pro-choice stain. The social gospel, according to this large faction, fits squarely with liberal economic policies. And so, we have the present impasse over the Ryan budget.

And it's a wonderful thing.

The article considers the nature and effect of the bishops' voice within the halls of Congress - particularly in light of the Democrats' effective silence on budgetary issues. While I ultimately disagree with the bishops' objections to the Ryan budget, I commend the model of dialogue in which they and the Republicans have engaged.

The debate will largely be decided by the November elections and the weight of the mandate handed to the victorious party. Nevertheless, for the first time in recent history, America is witnessing a mature and principled political debate. Between the GOP and the Catholic Church, no mud is being thrown, no names are being called and both sides are showing respect to the ideas and persons of their rivals. Gently rebuking the Georgetown Ninety, Ryan reiterated that the financial crisis requires a "charitable conversation." This is the model of political bipartisanship which America demands and deserves.

Unfortunately, it only exists because one party decided to sit this one out.

Political Philosophy

Leon Kass on the Real War on Poverty

At the AEI annual dinner Dr. Leon Kass explains life--work, love, service, and truth. He concludes with the need for hope:

In this most fundamental sense, hope is not a hope for change, but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world. Hope in this sense is not only a Judeo-Christian virtue. It is not only the most essential--and abundant--American virtue. It is the condition of the possibility of all human endeavor and all human fulfillment. Yes, there is still much spiritual poverty in America. But we go forward with confidence that our spiritual hungers can yet be nurtured in this almost promised land, provided that we have the courage to insist that the well-being of the spirit is central to our notion of national success and personal flourishing. This war on poverty--on our spiritual poverty--will not add a cent to the deficit. It can enrich our lives beyond measure.

Today, poverty, like pollution, needs a deeper understanding.

Political Philosophy

Ah, To Be Informed and Open-Minded

Daily Caller reports on a Pew survey, "Partisan Differences in Knowledge," which "shows that Republican supporters know more about politics and political history than Democrats."

The Pew survey adds to a wave of surveys and studies showing that GOP-sympathizers are better informed, more intellectually consistent, more open-minded, more empathetic and more receptive to criticism than their fellow Americans who support the Democratic Party.
. . .

A March 12 Pew study showed that Democrats are far more likely than conservatives to disconnect from people who disagree with them.
. . .

A March Washington Post poll showed that Democrats were more willing to change their views about a subject to make their team look good. For example, in 2006, 73 percent of Democrats said the GOP-controlled White House could lower gas prices, but that number fell by more than half to 33 percent in 2012 once a Democrat was in the White House.

The article also mentions "novel research from the University of Virginia."

UVA researchers have used a massive online survey to show that conservatives better understand the ideas of liberals than vice versa. The results are described in a new book by UVA researcher Jonathan Haidt, "Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

The book uses a variety of data to argue that conservatives have a balanced set of moral intuitions, while liberals are focused on aiding victims, fairness and individual liberty. Conservatives recognize how liberals think because they share those intuitions, but liberals don't understand how conservatives think because they don't recognize conservatives' additional intuitions about loyalty, authority and sanctity, Haidt argues.

And this bit of "commercial research into the tastes and political views of potential customers" was also highly amusing to me.

. . . researchers have learned that Internet sites offering financial information, sports scores, online-auctions attract far more interest from Republicans than from Democrats, according to a 2010 study by National Media Research, Planning and Placement, based in Alexandria, Va.

In contrast, Democrats outnumber Republicans at online dating sites, job-searches sites, online TV and online video-game sites, said the firm.

All very interesting - and very unsurprising.


Mourning Tocqueville

Yesterday marked the 153rd anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville, the extraordinary biographer of America, in all its splendor and its deficiencies. His principal virtue was his insight that liberty-smothering bureaucracy--what he termed "centralized administration"--was at the core of contemporary ills, and it would worsen, as this scandal  (more serious than the GSA) reminds us.

This Tocqueville anniversary coincides with the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson's bold attack on the American founders and his celebration of the administrative state, "What is Progress?" The presidential campaign address also proclaimed the need for Darwinian science to form the basis of our political science. The contrast between Wilson--who equated democracy and socialism--and Tocqueville, who denied such equivalence is most instructive.

Obama's ill-informed attribution of "Darwinism" to Paul Ryan, et al. flies in the face of his own Progressive, Darwinian assumptions, which repudiate constitutional government and justify tyranny.

A few years ago Diana Schaub penned a typically elegant essay on the anniversary of Tocqueville's death.

Categories > Conservatism

The Founding

Founders: Historians versus Politicians

This WaPo account of how various Republicans (why only them, one might ask) use/ransack the founding fathers pits the politicians against historians who criticize this alleged naievete.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Pauline Maier, author of several books about the period from the 1760s to the writing of the Constitution, says: "It is interesting why so many politicians and even judges today want to show that their ideas had firm foundations among the founders. In some ways, I suppose that defines a new phase in the culture wars over 'who is most American.' "

But, she adds, "that can also be very regressive: No founder ever embraced abortion or endorsed affirmative action. Eight­eenth-century Americans did take rights seriously, but their rank list of rights was probably different than those of rights-conscious people today. They lived, after all, over two centuries ago and on the rights front can seem pretty dated."

Like another fine historian of the Declaration, Carl Becker, Maier falls prey to historicism, the notion that one's historical circumstances poses an absolute barrier to finding transcendent truth. Evidently, to judge just from the professors cited in this article (Jack Rakove, among others), it's the scholars versus divisive Republican politicians.

But the contrast shows how much the defense of the Constitution resides in ordinary citizens and the politicians who reflect their concern. As the Progressives predicted and urged they would, intellectuals take the side of progress and history against the people's pride in their country as founded. Of course, not all thinkers agree with those consumed by Progressivism. Here's a shorter piece.

Categories > The Founding

Foreign Affairs

Our Lincoln Memorial, Iran's Cardboard

This is the Iran now arming itself with nukes. The ceremony led me to think about University College London having preserved Jeremy Bentham's body. And we do have those races around the Washington Nationals' stadium featuring giant dolls of Washington, Jefferson, LIncoln, and TR. No worries.

Categories > Foreign Affairs

Political Philosophy

Law and Liberty

Let me bring to your attention Liberty Fund's latest effort on behalf of the good cause: The Library of Law and LibertyThis impressive site's focus is on the content, status, and development of law in republican and limited government and the ways that liberty and law and law and liberty mutually reinforce the other. This site brings together serious debate, commentary, essays, book reviews, interviews, and educational material in a commitment to the first principles of law in a free society. Law and Liberty considers a range of foundational and contemporary legal issues, legal and political philosophy, and pedagogy.  There is much here, including a blog, Liberty Law Blog with Michael Greve and Michael Rappaport, et al.  Also note the Liberty Forum
which is a platform for debate, and you will note that some thoughtful folks are already involved in a good conversation--Hamburger, Stoner, Watson--and more will follow.  This is altogether good stuff and there is more. Do check it out.


The Progressive Era and Obama Error

David Brooks on how the Obama Administration used the wrong historical analogy of Progressivism--more government to deal with our crises--to get the nation into deeper trouble. 

First, the underlying economic situations are very different....

In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.

Second, the governmental challenge is very different today than it was in the progressive era. Back then, government was small and there were few worker safety regulations. The problem was a lack of institutions. Today, government is large, and there is a thicket of regulations, torts and legal encumbrances. The problem is not a lack of institutions; it's a lack of institutional effectiveness.

The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results....

In the progressive era, there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn't always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm....

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values -- a bad combination.

In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.

The progressive era is not a model; it is a foil. It provides a contrast and shows us what we really need to do.

Brooks concedes far more to Progressivism than he should on both policy and its philosophic soundness:  "The country needs a productive midlife crisis."  It needs rather to reassert its founding identity.  Here are some incisive brief essays on Progressive loopiness and radicalism. 

Categories > Progressivism

Foreign Affairs

Havel RIP, the Declaration Lives

Following Justin's entry below, recall Vaclav  Havel's message to Congress: 

"Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim....

 "[Y]ou Americans should understand this way of thinking.  Wasn't it the best minds of your country, ... who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence...and who, above all, took upon themselves practical responsibility for putting them into practice?" 

A text of the speech can be found here; the links are unhelpful, though.

Categories > Foreign Affairs

Political Philosophy

A Rationalist Discovers Politics

Megan McArdle on debt crises:

As I think I've said before, I used to cover financial crises (from America) and wonder why governments didn't do things that seemed so obvious.  The answer, I now realize, is that politicians can't just do the "obvious best" thing.  There is no such thing as a perfect rational maximizer in policymaking.

Politicians are always limited by what their voters think is fair.  The voters may be right, they may be wrong, but in the end (hopefully), they're still the boss.