The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism.
The political Left has an ideology, it may be terribly flawed, based on false premises, filled with empty promises and contradictory, but it is an ideology. One can’t say that much for the political Right. Conservatives seem devoid of any philosophy whatsoever.
Anyone wishing to comprehend the problems of conservatism should read Friedrich Hayek’s Why I am Not a Conservative. All the major defects of the modern conservative are exposed in this essay. Ludwig Mises has noted that socialism is not an economic system, much as the socialists pretend, but the denial of economics altogether. True socialism abolished money, prices and profits. It rids the world of the very feedback loops which make an economic system. But if the socialist is devoid of economic principles the conservative is devoid of philosophy.
Hayek lists three traits, among others, which apply to the conservative. One is that they cling to the past. The second is that they are willing to use state coercion to prevent change. The third is that they ultimately compromise with the socialists and adopt their positions (see George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism as an example). The conservative wishes to preserve power, not limit it. Hayek said such individuals are “essentially opportunist and lacks principles” but he does share one principle with the socialist “he regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds on other people.”
Hayek noted that while conservatives lack principles they don’t lack moral conviction. “The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them.”
Fundamentally the conservative has no philosophy. This has forced them to do one of two things. One brand turned to the great liberal thinkers like Smith, Bastiat, Hayek and Friedman. It was for this reason that Reagan said that the heart of conservatism was libertarianism.
But the modern Theopublican Right has abandoned that libertarian heart. It thus lacks any philosophical principles whatsoever. And political movements are like nature -- they have a vacuum. And in the place of philosophy they cling to religion.
One example of this is a particularly bad article written by the theocratically inclined Mary Grabar. It is logically wrong and historically wrong. It is merely meant to be an attack on people who don’t share her viewpoints. It is an absurdly badly argued piece but it shares the trait of Coulteresque infection that has made conservatism a laughingstock.
She writes of “’tolerant’ atheists” putting the word tolerant in quotes marks implying it is a lie. She wishes that non-Christians “all just went off by themselves into their own little self-created hells where they snarl and snipe” this is followed by a series of snarls and snipes against non-believers. The atheist Sam Harris wrote a book “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Grabar relies, sort of, with a rant called “Letter to a Stupid Atheist”. This is the argumentation of the intellectually bankrupt. It doesn’t dissect it merely insults. For the Theopublican smear and slander is the closest they get to intellectual content. They have abandoned reason and logic and cling to revelation as the basis of society. The liberal, and by that I mean the classical liberal, defends the religious freedom of the conservative.
But religion is not the foundation of a liberal society. The great liberals who founded the United States devised a system to protect the religious freedom of the people but to separate church from state. But let us look at Graber’s logic along with her deficient understanding of history.
Her argument is that “democracy” is based on Christianity. And that American democracy must be preserved through the force, and I suspect she really does mean force, of Christian religion. There are several flaws in this. First, the United States was most certainly not founded as a democracy. The founding fathers were quite adamant that the United States was founded as a republic.
Very little of the American system of government was based on democratic principles. While the voters elected Representatives for the House the rest of the federal government was undemocratic. The Senators originally were appointed by the state legislators with each state appointing two. The president was elected by electors from each state but not directly by the voters. The third major branch, the judicial branch, was dominated by the Supreme Court which is appointed, not elected, by a president who was not directly elected, and approved by Senators who were not elected.
Over and over they set up roadblocks to democracy. Constitutional amendments needed approval by super majorities in order to make it difficult for popular passions to sweep people in an illiberal direction -- something which has saved America from various theocratic changes that people like Graber would like to impose on the country. America simply was not founded as a democracy.
Democracy was a Greek concept and all things considered was an improvement on the system of kings and dictators. But Grabar, ever the theocrat, argues that democracy is really Christian. Oddly one can’t find a single feature of democracy within the holy texts of the Christian faith. She says: “The very notion of democracy is based on Christian principles -- a historical fact...” This in spite of the fact that democratic theory pre-exists Christianity. Democracy is pre-Christian and thus is not founded in Christianity.
The modern version is called liberal democracy. This was a combination of the modern and the ancient. Ancient Green principles of democracy were merged with the insights of liberal philosophy. Liberalism is pro-liberty and thus it was meant to restrict democracy for the same reason it restricts all state power no matter the basis on which the state is founded. But again this is not a Christian principle.
Grabar argues that there is a “radical Christian notion of equality” which “forms the basis of our democratic values.” That is just nonsense. The Christian notion was one of equality only in the sense that all believers were believers. But there was no equality of rights before the law. The New Testament did not claim that power was to be limited at all. Paul told slaves to obey their masters. The New Testament posited a hierarchical system. Slaves were ruled by their masters, the people ruled by the kings and the all ruled by God. The prime virtue that was taught here was one of obedience not equality. Power was to be obeyed not limited. This is one reason that you find an almost total lack of support for liberal political systems among any of the major historical figures in Christianity. Some, such as Luther and Calvin, were quite openly authoritarian. Roman Catholicism opposed the liberalism that inspired the American Founders.
Grabar is grasping at straws in order to defend an order that never existed. Her radical equality was one that openly defended slavery. While the liberal founders were often opponents to slavery it was the deeply religious South which defended the practice and they did so by appealing to Scripture. This “radical equality” was a notion unknown at the time. Evangelical George Whitefield pushed the legalization of slavery, using the Bible as his criteria, in the state of Georgia. Between the time he pushed through this reform and the abolition of slavery through the Civil War something like 1 million people were enslaved in this one state alone. No radical equality there whatsoever.
Grabar claims that since Christianity says all men are sinners therefore government must be limited. It says no such thing whatsoever. It says men are sinners but some men are a class of priests and rulers who serve that the whim of God and must be obeyed. Paul never preached limitations on the state only obedience to the state.
Grabar says that the “ultimate arbiter is God” in a Christian order. Not really. This arbiter does nothing in this life and does not act to limit the state. Throughout Western history there was a belief in the divine right of kings. They were appointed by God and thus the duty of the Christian was obedience to the king. That is what Grabar’s church taught, with one proviso, the king was to obey the church. Again that is not a limitation of power. If there is a God who acts as arbiter he does so in the next life not this one. We have seen precisely how well that belief limits power.
Grabar snidely wonders “Who is the ultimate arbiter for the atheists? Sam Harris? Richard Dawkins? Adolph Hitler?” Again she is smearing. Hitler shared Grabar’s religion. He was a Catholic who never left the church nor was every excommunicated. Grabar wants to know: “To whom will they (atheists) appeal when they cannot decide their infernal debates?”
She is certainly out of touch with reality if she believes an appeal to God settles “infernal debates”. Which God? The authoritarian Jehovah of the Old Testament, the more kindly Jesus of the New Testament, the Allah of the Koran? Which God? If the Christian God which Christian God? Is it the dictatorial God of Calvin or the more tolerant deity of Roger Williams or William Penn? Are there no “infernal debates” among Christians? Of course there are. There are centuries of debates which their God has never managed to solve. And it is dishonest to pretend that an appeal to God solves anything.
Grabar says the atheist believes science can replace religion. That is false. Science can not replace religion because they are two very different things. Science tells you facts and only facts. How you live is the realm of philosophy not science. Philosophy, not science, is the alternative to theocracy. Apparently Graber doesn’t understand that philosophy and science are two different fields which deal with different aspects of life. So the paragraph she spends on how science doesn’t tell us how to live is wasted. I don’t know anyone who claims that science does tell us how to live. It can only tell us facts and philosophy integrates those facts into a moral code. Science does not do that.
I am surprised at how simplistic Grabar is with her arguments. I also think she is either woefully ignorant or dishonest. She says since atheism does believe in “sin” it “does not allow for forgiveness.” False. False. False. Grabar is wrong again. If by sin you mean arbitrary rules stated in a divine book by a deity then no atheism does not believe in sin. But if sin means transgression then sin is a very real thing. People transgress against others all the time. And forgiveness is sometimes appropriate. One need not have divine authority to have forgiveness. A man may say something cruel to his wife. He may realize it and ask her to forgive him after apologizing. She forgives the man she loves. There is no sin of the theological kind, no violation of church law, Biblical law, no involvement of the divine. But there is forgiveness.
To prove her point that atheists are without forgiveness she asks to look at the calls by Louis Farrakhan for “reparations” to slaves. But Farrakhan is no atheist. And the issue is irrelevant to the matter she discusses. It does not illustrate her point whatsoever.
She then refers to an “atheist, secular view”. Atheist and secular are not the same thing. Grabar apparently thinks they are. Liberalism is secular but not necessarily atheistic. Liberalism says nothing about whether there is or is not a God. It merely says that government power must be secular, separated from religion. An atheist does not believe in a deity. A secularist might well do so. The Founders were secularists but not necessarily atheists though many were not Christians. Some very strongly religious people once believed in secular government. Even two decades ago the theocratically inclined conservatives were a fringe within conservatism.
Grabar misstates atheism repeatedly. She says atheists believe in the power of their own minds “and reforming society to bring about a utopia”. That is false. Who is attempting to remake the entire Middle East? A Christian, George Bush. Some of the most prominent advocates of a free society that is not being socially engineered have been non-Christians like Hayek, Mises, Friedman and others.
Consider the separation of powers that the Founders instituted in order to limit the state. Conservatives oppose these limitations. Consider the issue of marriage as one example. This is a state matter yet so many of the theocratic conservatives want a constitutional amendment to prevent changes in marriage laws. They wish to concentrate this power at the national level. But as Hayek pointed out they are quick to use state power to prevent change.
Grabar says that if you don’t believe in God then the state becomes a substitute for God. But the one does not follow the other. The great liberals, who wanted to limit the state, were not orthodox Christians and almost none of them were Catholics like Grabar. Jefferson might have believed in a deity, that is open to debate, but he was not a Christian in any theological sense of the word. Yet he actively worked to limit the state. Hayek was not theologically inclined and spent his life discussing the necessity of limitations on state power. On the other hand the great theologians of the past two millenniums were often advocates of an all-powerful state that was bloody in its pursuit of divine law. And it is conservatives like Grabar who are consolidating state power at the federal level and calling for state enforcement of their private moral codes. That is why I still contend that the Religious Right is a movement of socialists of the soul.