Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Tap at Georgetown

D.C.-area readers or visitors may be interested in these upcoming events taking place under the auspices of the program I inaugurated in 2006, the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. A fuller listing of our events is on our website here, as well as recordings of past events.

A FORUM LECTURE
Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered
Joseph Pearce, Ave Maria University
March 3, 2009; Philodemic Room, 5:30-7:00 p.m.


2nd ANNUAL REV. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J. AWARD
Recipient: Dr. Leon Kass, University of Chicago
Lecture: Defending Human Dignity: What It Is and Why It Matters
March 23, 2009
Copley Formal Lounge, 7:30-9:00 p.m.

A FORUM DEBATE
Co-sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Economic Freedom and Moral Virtue:
Does the Free Market Produce Captive Souls?
David Schindler, John Paul II Institute on Studies of Marriage and Family
vs.
Doug Bandow, former Cato Senior Fellow, and author, Foreign Follies
Moderator: Patrick Deneen, Georgetown University
April 1, 2009, ICC Auditorium

A FORUM LECTURE
Catholicism: The Last Hope for a Dying Culture
Anthony Esolen, Providence College
April 24, 2008, Location and Time TBD

Friday, February 20, 2009

Debt

My Webster's New International Dictionary (the storied Second Edition, a three volume masterpiece I inherited from my grandmother) defines debt variously, but several definitions leap out: first, debt is "an obligation"; second, "A neglect or violation of duty; a fault; a sin; a trespass." (Hence, in some versions of the Lord's prayer, we pray "forgive us our debts). Third (obscure), "a bounden duty." Lastly, "State of owing, esp. of owing more than one can pay or perform; as, to fall in debt; deep in debt."

I think these varying definitions capture a transformation of the popular meaning and practice of debt in our time. Debt was something both remarkably positive and negative. Positively, it was an obligation or duty that was owed to another, and as such, represented a bond between people. At its most fundamental, debt was in some senses a possession: in cultures in which we literally inherit our ways and patterns of lives from our forbears, we are indebted to them for what we are, who we are, for our capacity to live and thrive in this world. Debt in this sense is thus something not literally to be paid back, but something that obligates us to pass our inheritance along intact. We are obligated, a word that comes from the Latin word ligare - to bind - and which is also at the root of the word "religion," "re-ligare". A debt is thus a bond between people that forms the deepest set of connections of a society, a source of memory and responsibility. We recall our debts to those who have come before us with gratitude and awe, and this recollection instills in us a duty and obligation to act with similar care and regard for generations that follow us.

Debt can also be neglected, and thus represents a severe moral lapse - hence its association with "sin, trespass, violation." Our indebtedness is thus a profoundly moral condition: to neglect or ignore our indebtedness, especially not to acknowledge gratitude and obligation, is to exhibit a deep moral failing. Our capacity to acknowledge debts as obligations is a fundamental requirement for the sustenance of a society. A society that loses both these senses of debt - debt as a kind of "possession" we inherit from previous generations, and as a moral requirement of obligation and gratitude - is one whose underpinnings are poised to unravel.

Our current understanding of debt was formed mainly by the evisceration of these twin understandings of debt - above all by eviscerating its moral dimensions. Debt became a financial management "tool," less a moral obligation than an avenue for ever-greater consumption. Debt was originally understood to be a kind of moral discipline, but was transformed to a method of self-indulgence. By stripping it of its moral dimension, it became a means of indulging our appetite and draining our capacity for self-denial.

To achieve this debased understanding, debt had to become temporally unmoored. Debt ceased to have at its root a generational dimension, but rather became a route to a profound presentism. Of course, this exclusively financial and consumer-based understanding of debt rested on a deep presupposition that future growth permitted present irresponsibility, but such a view of the future was only possible by disassociating past and future from the present. A view of a limitless future is only possible by discounting continuity between past, present and future: such a "future-orientation" is in fact an artifact of profound presentism. Debt became effectively unmoored from a conception of gratitude or from a deeper moral sense of obligation. It became a purely utilitarian concept that permitted both easy terms, excessive use and relaxed broaching, such as is now frequently the case in people "walking away" from their mortgage obligations.

The etymology of "debt" is of further interest, in that it derives from the word "habere," "to have." Thus, we see at its roots that debt is in some senses properly a possession, not a liability. "Habere" also lies at the root of the word "habit," one of the meanings of which is "a settled tendency of behavior or normal manner of occurrence or or procedure; a custom or practice." A proper understanding of debt as a possession that demands of us strict moral probity - including gratitude and obligation - requires a culture that encourages the development of good habits, including acknowledgment of generational debts and inheritance. Tendencies must be "settled" - we must have a palpable sense of the consequences of our actions and behavior on our community, lest we be tempted to act out of irresponsibility and negligence toward people to whom we believe we owe no obligation or gratitude.

We are decidedly reaping what we have sown, above all by dissociating the concept of "debt" from its moral basis and its temporal dimensions. If such a moral grounding serves as an implicit foundation for a good and healthy society, then we should understand our current sickness not as an "economic" crisis subject to solution by various stimuli aimed to increase our borrowing and consumption, but most fundamentally a moral one that demands a more fundamental and comprehensive re-thinking of our age.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

End of Right Patriotism?

I explore whether we are seeing a reversal of Left and Right on the matter of patriotism, here.

My conclusion:

It may indeed be the case of a rejuvenation of pre-Reagan conservatism, drawing deeply from the works of such authors as Kirk, Weaver, Niebuhr and other “pessimists” (or, I would submit, Realists) may doom any such New/Old/Paleo conservatism to irrelevancy in the American narrative. However, if some of its basic message has remained the same, times have decidedly changed. Faced with a collapsing economic system, the undoing of the American-led Post-World War II global consensus, the growing evidence of environmental and moral depletion all around us, the message of conservative realism may be ripe for a re-hearing and reassessment. Everywhere people are realizing that the message of optimism - don’t worry, be happy, and pay for it tomorrow - was in fact a message of deception, duplicity and fraud. Neither the mainstream Left nor Right appear capable of speaking meaningfully to the import of this moment. Ironically, the very moment that the Left has re-connected to its message of “liberal faith” may be the very moment when that faith is proven to be too much evidence of things unseen. In the meantime, a critique of the American narrative - combined with a reconsideration of “Another America,” a tradition of localism, community, self-government based in limits, a culture of memory and tradition, undergirded by faith and virtue - may have found its moment. For starters, its heroes are more likely to be the likes of the Anti-federalists (see Bill Kauffman’s book on Luther Martin for a start) than the triumphalist narrative of the Founders and their creation of an empire of liberty. Its cultural heroes are more likely to be the Waltons rather than the celebrity flavor of the month (I can’t recommend enough a re-viewing of this series, now more than ever, courtesy of Netflix. We have been watching it with our children for some months, and it is salutary and decent beyond description). I speak here of a revival of patriotism, alright, but a patriotism based in places and folkways, not abstraction and expansion. Thus, perhaps not the sort of patriotism we are used to, but one of noble lineage and one that will need good storytellers to begin to displace an otherwise broken and tinny narrative that now should be discarded.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Growth

In last week's New York Times Magazine, the Time's economics writer David Leonhardt laid out one of the more succinct cases for growth that generally and implicitly informs the near-universal agreement that getting the economy back on track means returning to positive GNP growth. Leonhardt writes:

"What will happen once the paddles have been applied and the economy’s heart starts beating again? How should the new American economy be remade? Above all, how fast will it grow?

"Yet the consequences of a country’s growth rate are not abstract at all. Slow growth makes almost all problems worse. Fast growth helps solve them. As Paul Romer, an economist at Stanford University, has said, the choices that determine a country’s growth rate 'dwarf all other economic-policy concerns.'

"Growth is the only way for a government to pay off its debts in a relatively quick and painless fashion, allowing tax revenues to increase without tax rates having to rise. That is essentially what happened in the years after World War II. When the war ended, the federal government’s debt equaled 120 percent of the gross domestic product (more than twice as high as its likely level by the end of next year). The rapid economic growth of the 1950s and ’60s — more than 4 percent a year, compared with 2.5 percent in this decade — quickly whittled that debt away. Over the coming 25 years, if growth could be lifted by just one-tenth of a percentage point a year, the extra tax revenue would completely pay for an $800 billion stimulus package."

What leaps out immediately in this summary of the positive benefits of growth are two connected arguments:

1. High levels of indebtedness are now needed to increase growth;
2. Fast growth will help repay the debt, along with solving many other problems.

The basic circularity implicit in our current moment reveals a deeply troubling truth about our current economic condition: growth is fundamentally generated by deepening and extending bad behaviors (such as indebtedness), the costs of which are to be obscured by economic growth. However, because those costs keep rising - in every sense, not only monetary, but socially, environmentally, generationally - the need for higher economic and social costs to spur greater growth, and greater growth to service and obfuscate the costs, increases exponentially. In recent years the frenetic logic of this basic truth has led us to a condition like a runner on an out-of-control treadmill, running madly to get ahead, at best standing still, at worst about to be thrown off the machine.

We need to think here broadly about the necessity of growth in modern society. Growth, we are told, is the engine of prosperity: economic growth makes possible the "indolency of the body" that was the fundamental goal of modern philosophy. Yet, if prosperity and comfort is the goal, then "growth" is potentially, and often in fact, distinct from that goal: growth becomes its own object, undermining our capacity to enjoy any such "indolency" (as Weber noted long ago about the "Protestant ethic") and feeds rather into a belief that there can never be a condition of satisfaction, but rather always the craving for more (see this video for hilarious confirmation of this basic fact). As Tocqueville came to understand, one of the central conditions of modernity was inquietude - "restlessness."

"Growth" is not necessarily, or even likely, a source of human happiness. Why is it the overarching and one univocally agreed-upon goal of our modern politics?

Economic growth is a relatively new goal for human civilization. According to Joseph Pearce in Small is Still Beautiful (who cites Angus Maddison's book Phases of Capitalist Development),

"during the thousand years between AD 500 and 1500, gross domestic product (GDP) grew on average by only 0.1 percent a year. As such, the volume of economic activity in 1500 was between 2.5 and 3 percent higher as it had been a thousand years earlier. To put this in perspective, the Western economies grew as much in percentage terms in the twenty years between 1950 and 1970 as they had done between the thousand years between 500 and 1500.... Today the growth of world GDP regularly exceeds 3 percent per annum" (p. 11).

What changed?

Economic growth became one of the fundamental imperatives in modern society in part because of a change in philosophic, theological, and, correspondingly, economic orientation. Before the advent of early modern philosophy - broadly speaking, liberal political philosophy combined with early iterations of capitalism, represented above all by the combination of John Locke and Adam Smith - society was conceived as an organism in which the work of individuals was understood consciously to contribute to the good of the broader society. Ancient and Christian thinkers spoke often of society in terms of a body, and its members as parts of a broader whole whose vocation - 'calling' - oriented their work toward the achievement of communitas. Such a sentiment is captured with clarity and force in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, 12:12-26:

"For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members each one of them in the body, even as it pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now they are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary: and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness; whereas our comely parts have no need: but God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it."

Conceived of as a body, members of society were oriented toward understanding their work as partial and contributory toward the good of the whole. Such an understanding was not easy or automatic - we "see through a glass darkly," Paul tells us shortly - but it becomes part of our work to strive to understand our work in this way. We are always and everywhere tempted to think of ourselves as parts of a body that can live independent of the whole - this is a fundamental part of our nature (as the ancients would hold), or a consequence of the Fall. Social solidarity is a hard-won, carefully cultivated achievement, attained through "caritas" - love - against some of our deepest inclinations toward self-centered, prideful belief in our self-sufficiency. Combating and in part overcoming our pride, too, is part of our nature - or a Christ-like achievement - but one that comes with great effort and difficulty.

A body "grows," but organically, slowly, and at some point achieves a fullness that does not permit greater expansion. Like a body, a society that grows excessively is considered diseased, repugnant and horrific to behold. Ancient philosophy and theology stressed the need for small communities as the best settings for achieving the full measure of virtue. Small settings encourage solidarity while discouraging belief in self-sufficiency. In such settings we see more clearly our bonds and obligations, understanding our place in the work of the community and our connection to past and future generations. At the same time, smaller communities make it far less likely that we pursue (or successfully achieve) worldly glory or wealth, those solvents that undermine solidarity and virtue. There is watchfulness against luxury, gluttony, greed, profligacy, and the pursuit of material plenty, and rather an imperative to live modestly, within limits, fully cultivating the virtues of thrift, frugality, and temperance.

Seeking to liberate the individual from the restraints of such settings - restraints that were legally, culturally, and personally enforced - early modern philosophers understood that they faced a profound challenge: how to replace the hard-won achievement of social solidarity? What "glue" would hold together a people who were encouraged to indulge precisely in what had once been considered to be vices: self-interest, concupiscence, luxury, worldliness, the belief in self-sufficiency? Cognizant that society was fragile and even easily destroyed - given the human propensity toward individual self-aggrandizement - early modern philosophers sought a kind of "replacement" for the cultivation of virtue in and through society. It was Locke and Smith, above all, who understood that economic growth could become a replacement for solidarity and virtue.

The liberation of the individual from the restraints of a culture based in virtue and solidarity was necessarily based upon the central goal of the conquest of nature. Unending and unlimited growth required the studied capacity to extract - by force, if necessary (or, to use Francis Bacon's preferred analogy, by torture) - the bounties of a natural world that, without productive human intervention, was to be viewed as both niggardly and simple "waste." This became the core of the modern project, a replacement source of solidarity that especially displaced religion and worship of the divine as a source of meaning.

(We have sought to repeat the unsuccessful experiment of the men of the land of Shinar, who - while they spoke the same language - nevertheless sought to build a tower to heaven in order to "make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered over the face of the entire earth." (Genesis, 11:4). Lacking cohesion attained through self-governance, they sought its replacement by means of a project so ambitious that it sought to scale the walls of heaven itself. In a sense, God's curse of many languages was a just punishment that only confirmed the existing truth of the situation of those meant who built Babel Tower.)

While many defenders of a materialist order defend it on the grounds that it represents a departure from the destructive and faith-based violences of a religious age, we should notice that it is in fact premised upon the unleashing of human destructive powers upon the world and the faith-based belief that the benefits of future economic growth is always within reach for everyone. Perhaps one conclusion to be drawn is that humans are always prone to sin, division, destruction and self-delusion, but one of belief system is better at insisting upon and recalling this truth, while the other believes that this human condition can be transcended through prosperity.

Thus modern philosophy sought to liberate us from any conception of society comparable to that of a "body": revealingly, Adam Smith argued that the achievement of the functional equivalent of solidarity - the market, in which laws of supply and demand replaced conscious considerations of how our work contributed to the good of the whole - was to be conceived in terms of a part, namely an "invisible hand." There was to be no more "whole," only parts which themselves would be unconsciously contributory to a part. In our separation, we were to pursue our individual goods and thereby increase the overall wealth of society.

One of the main aims of early modern philosophy was to liberate people's fullest capacities for personal and individual self-fulfillment, meaning that individuals needed to be liberated from what could otherwise be restraining demands of virtue and solidarity. The social separation that was to be achieved by thinking ourselves primarily and naturally as individuals was necessarily a threat to the incipient order. Growth in productivity would give rise to significant inequalities in wealth and situation. The loss of our self-understanding as parts of a whole meant that individuals who achieved material success were able to consider their achievement as fully their own. By contrast, those who happened to be counted among the "lazy and contentious" (Locke's term) were understood to have failed on through their own fault alone. A society riven by self-congratulation and resentments was a likely outcome of this philosophical, economic and theological transformation.

What was viewed as the replacement for solidarity was growth. A wealthier and productive society could serve as a salve for those who failed to achieve comparable material success as "the industrious and rational," and would give protection to those whose accumulations might otherwise be an object of envy in a more static society comprised of self-understood monadic individuals. Locke is quite clear on this point in his justly famous Book 5 of The Second Treatise, in which he writes that the the day-laborer in England must understand that he is better off than the greatest and wealthiest King of the Indians in the America. As a consequence of living in a dynamic economic order, even the poorest person is wealthier than the most prominent member of a static economic order. Anticipating in theory, if not explicit words, Reagan's adage that "a rising tide raises all boats," the poorest person in a wealth-generating society psychically agrees to have potential resentments replaced by the creature comforts and the prospect for more, whether or not he is personally successful. Growth replaces virtue; material comfort stands in for solidarity.

This has worked well in theory, but it has of late confronted a great material fact: there is no infinite growth within a closed system. Lately we have accumulated growing evidence of the rising costs of our pursuit of limitless growth, whether most evidently in resource depletion, devastation of plant and animal life, growing mountains and oceans of waste, the race to pursue growth through increased borrowing from the future, and even less measurable but no less evident features of our age that doubtlessly result from excessive vice (a.k.a. prosperity), such as rampant irresponsibility and immorality in nearly every facet of life.

If economic growth is most fundamentally the capacity to use and harness energy in more "productive" or "efficient" ways, then the accelerated use of energy must occur in spite of the fact that there is no actual increase in the overall daily input of energy from the sun. Energy utilization must therefore depart from a basis upon annual usage (based in a circular conception of time, in which our lives are structured in accordance with the daily rotation of the sun and the passing of the seasons, and the respective bounties that are possible within a constant and unchanging inflow of solar energy) to a geologic usage (and, hence, a change in conception of time from a circular to a linear mode). In particular, the utilization of fossil fuels beginning in the early years of the 19th-century was the catalyst for an explosion and acceleration of economic growth, largely unbroken for the past 150 years. Those concentrated accumulations of pre-modern sunlight permitted - for a time - the transcendence of limits otherwise imposed by daily and seasonal energy inputs and humankind's efforts to live within those limits that the natural world imposed. It permitted, in turn, greater degrees of personal liberation than might have been imaginable by even Smith and Locke, ever more radical declarations of individual independence from society, from one another, from God.

Yet, growth was the imperative of the age, and had to be attained even if it was built on false foundations of debt impossible to repay. Now we have a deflationary cycle that returns us to a basis in reality - and our response is, we must return to a "healthy" condition of economic growth. Mere months ago we bemoaned the depletion of the earth's bounty and imminent confrontation with energy shortages. Now we seek to return to growth - ignoring, for now, what awaits us in that case. We have no choice: the only basis for our civilization is economic growth. We think of it as an economic condition while neglecting that it is the meaning of life itself for moderns.

Leonhardt rightly notes that "growth" allows us redress of innumerable problems, but doesn't really get to the half of it: maintaining growth has rested on the need to generate ever greater problems that we have relied upon more growth to solve, or at least to obscure the consequences. Above all, our reliance upon economic growth allows us to ignore the deepest challenges of achieving and sustaining social cohesion and personal and social virtues, to unlearn any lessons that previous generations had to learn. As we face a shrinking economy, our incapacity to deal with the innumerable problems that now face us bluntly and profoundly will not in essence be the result of declining growth, but in fact because of conditions that were necessary in the first place to achieve growth - especially the evisceration of capacities for solidarity and virtue. If we are indeed entering a new Depression, it is without the advantages of higher degrees of social solidarity and personal and social virtue that was a matter of inheritance during our last Depression. We may yet learn them - of necessity - but not before some of the worst consequences of our social separation and absence of virtue will manifest themselves baldly in circumstances of want and deprivation.

If we are indeed confronting the limits of a theory that was always doomed to failure - given that there can be no infinite growth (short, that is, to becoming the creatures portrayed in the film "Independence Day" that ravages planet after planet, having made their own uninhabitable) - and I think there is considerable evidence gathering that this is the case - then we face times far more trying than even our current dire economic prognostications would suggest. For, we have simultaneously premised a society based on the abandonment and rejection of virtue - thereby having made it almost impossible to re-learn all that has been forgotten - while undermining the hard habits of solidarity that lie at the heart of pre-modern teachings. Desperate to avoid the consequences of our decision to abandon the hard discipline of freedom attained through self-government, we insist upon our birthright to freedom attained through nature's conquest and a society of social separation and avoidance of virtue. How long we can continue this self-delusive belief is in question, but one can hazard to guess that it will be until the last possible moment - that is to say, until it is too late.

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's Not the Economy, Stupid

Beginning next week I will be posting a set of thoughts on the economy: Growth; Debt; Work; and, I hope, a concluding post with "Another Way." This post is something of a promissory note and a prolegomena. I have been waiting and thinking, trying with some effort to get beyond the din of voices at a time when everyone is an economist and no one has a very good "answer." It is difficult to gain perspective amid the avalanche of expert views.

I am not by training nor inclination an economist. Still, as a political theorist, the economy is an area of deep concern - it is one of the major forces that is shaped by our deepest political assumptions, and in turn shapes our politics. I can claim no special expertise about what sorts of policies are needed, but I can point to a considerable "public" record of deep concern over the direction of our economy that dates back to the very inception of this "blawg." At a time when so many of our professional economists are wondering what happened and why the crisis wasn't widely anticipated by the purportedly most scientific of the social sciences, there were some - and I would include myself - who foresaw a painful and wrenching reckoning. I wrote here nearly two years ago of a "global ponzi scheme," of the excessive indebtedness of our fellow citizens born of deep irresponsibility, of the general narrowness of our temporal horizon, of our generational neglect.

I sought out the views of experts who were inclined to see and understand our economy as due for a fall - people like James Grant and Jeremy Grantham, viewed by many (for a time at least) as doomsayers in the wilderness (and now, perhaps, as Cassandras). I began writing about the implications of peak oil before the atmospheric rise in the price of oil, thinking especially about the implications of an energy constrained and growth-challenged future in ways that the field of political theory almost entirely neglected (indeed, my fears and concerns about oil depletion was the reason I considered first starting this "blawg"). I suggested that it would be wise to consider shorting the market (and lamented that my retirement fund only allowed the default assumption of permanent growth) and suggested that gold was something worth acquiring.

I note my apparent precocity not to crow, but to stress that my general accuracy bore no relationship to my economic acumen. I was drawn to read the "bears" and pessimists not because I had special insight into their correctness, but because of a pre-existing set of assumptions that drew me to their conclusions. I would submit that it was that same existence of a very different set of pre-existing assumptions about the permanence of growth that attracted most Americans to the predominant views of most of our economist class.

In short, my interest in, and fears for, the state of our economy was born of a set of moral concerns. It arose from the belief that our economy was built on a set of deeper behaviors that were ultimately self-destructive. I believed that our impending crisis - and believe our current crisis - is moral, not merely economic. And, to the extent that most of our chattering classes suggest that the "problem" can be fixed by this or that policy - example number 1, a "stimulus package" - we remain in deep self-denial about the source of this crisis and the true path to its resolution.

Indeed, our self-delusion commits us to further self-destruction. The dominant "debate" in this country is about the best means of restoring our economic "health," whether through tax cuts or government spending. Both major parties fundamentally agree that what is desired is the resumption of our "normal" economy, unwilling to face the fact of the matter that our economy is not, and has not, been "healthy." Our economy - premised upon permanent growth within a closed system - is based on profound falsehood. The implicit belief that unleashed appetite and consumption represent "health" is a stunning faith commitment among our elders. The claims that we can square the values of social justice (among the Democrats) or family values (among the Republicans) and a rapacious and presentist economic order is deeply self-delusional. We still refuse to see the moral dimension of our crisis, and to that extent will only deepen and prolong it. The "stimulus package" continues the basic bad habits we have developed, premised upon the belief that deeper debt produces greater growth. If it weren't so colossally tragic it would be risible.

Our deepest problem perhaps lies in our compartmentalization of the nature of this moment. In viewing it as "economic," we obscure from ourselves the deeper connections between our economic collapse, the ravaging of the natural world, the lack of self-discipline of our "personal" moral behavior, the daily growing illegitimacy of our republican government. All of these phenomena - and many others, more wide to be expressed in one post or by one person - are deeply connected to, and ultimately derive from, the deepest presuppositions of our modern age - namely, the unleashing of the human appetite in the belief that it constitutes a positive good. Our incapacity and inability to exercise self-government lies most deeply across the spectrum of our current crises. All around us we face a denouement of our deepest philosophical convictions, a perfect storm of the logic of the age. To think for a moment we require the some perfect "fix" for the discrete problem in our economic system is a self-delusive luxury we can ill afford to believe and act upon any longer.

More, much more needs to be said. I will try, in coming days.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mr. Lincoln

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Still a figure that generates great controversy, I deeply admire Lincoln - his thought, his words, his deep reflections on the nature of republican government - though, too, I worry often that he helped usher in, or gave great aid, to the modern project of consolidation and centralization. It is a difficult set of reactions to reconcile, so I let them wrestle with each other without seeking easy conclusion. Still, his great cautions to avoid hubris and pride in matters of politics is worthy of recollection at any time, and perhaps especially in our times.

In my book Democratic Faith I wrote a conclusion in which I reflected on the meaning of Lincoln's justly famous and admired Second Inaugural Address. I offer it today here on this site (warning - it's quite long) as my gift to Mr. Lincoln, in admiration and gratitude in his defense of human equality.



A Model of Democratic Charity




--“Pride is perverted imitation of God.
For pride hates a fellowship of equality under God,
and seeks to impose its own domination on fellow men….”
Augustine, City of God


Many interpreters of Lincoln’s political thought read his earliest work forward, finding in such early speeches as the “Address to the Young Man’s Lyceum” of 1838 or 1842’s “Address to the Washington Temperance Society” the blossoming seeds of Lincoln’s full-blown mature thought. These treatments stress Lincoln’s rationalism, and particularly his strong Lockeanism that presumes government is based purely upon consent, that consent is derived through the agreement of rationally self-interested parties. Such interpreters argue that Lincoln’s understanding of equality is fundamentally liberal – that is, that we are all equally free in the State of Nature, and that by means of our mutual agreement to bind ourselves under a legitimate government, our equality is retained in the form of equal treatment under law and through equal opportunity in the sphere of economics.

The Calvinism, even Augustinianism of the Second Inaugural is, by contrast, thought to be the culmination of a series of reflections late in Lincoln’s life that were prompted by the awful carnage and unexpected duration of the Civil War. An unpublished fragment entitled “A Meditation on the Divine Will,” as well as several religious-themed letters to his occasional Quaker correspondent Eliza P. Gurney, point to Lincoln’s growing sense of providential and divine meaning lying behind the discrete actions of the war (II.359, 627).

Of course, there is considerable overlap between social contract theory and Protestantism, particularly Calvinism; in last chapter’s discussion of Niebuhr, it was Niebuhr’s Protestantism that attracted him to the Calvinist “realism” of Madison in the first instance, and in part Madison’s training at the hands of the Princeton’s Calvinist President John Witherspoon that laid the groundwork for his understanding of the ineradicability of human self-interest and hence the need for institutional controls of depravity. Nevertheless, there is also profound tension and even outright disagreement between the liberalism of Locke and Madison, on the one hand, and Augustinianism in its various forms, on the other. Liberals begin by assuming that government, and politics generally, is an unnatural condition; Calvin, by contrast, does not. Liberals advance the ideal of our equal natural liberty; Augustinians and Calvinists instead stress our equal subordination, our status as brothers and sisters under a common Father. Liberals posit that self-interest can be channeled productively for the greater good of society and thus need not be restrained; Augustinians seek not only to “abridge” self-interest and reprimand the inclination to concentrate upon the “self” in general, but reject individualism and individual autonomy as an ideal of human life. Liberals regard justice as the highest and an achievable political ideal; Augustinians regard love – caritas, or “charity” – as the highest yet likely unachievable ideal, and justice as an imperfect and second-best approximation of love. Liberals believe that religion is a source of strife and division and is therefore best left to the individual conscience in the private sphere; Augustinians regard both the public and private spheres as ultimately subordinate to divine law, and therefore eschew a simple division between religion and State, although, at the same time, resist the notion that theocracy or a full mixing of the sacred and profane would be in any way desirable (mostly because this would draw religion too fully within the sphere of the political and too deeply immerse it in inessential considerations that are best left to temporal powers). If, according to one approach, Lincoln begins his career as a secular liberal but ends on a note of somber Augustinianism, might we conclude that there is a fundamental break in his thought and a contradiction between his early and late articulations?

Without being able to answer this question at the length and with the detail it deserves, I propose that we best understand Lincoln not by reading his early “rationalist” and apparently liberal speeches forward – as obvious and correct as that might seem – but rather by reading the import of his last words backward. In particular, we do best to understand his life-long critique of slavery and his conception of human equality, his endorsement of “charity” as a fitting response to his belief in human equality, and finally his defense of government as natural and democracy as superior because of this understanding of human equality, in essence foreshadowed throughout his written record and finding its culmination in the Second Inaugural. I conclude with a brief reflection on this alternative understanding of, and justification for, democracy.

In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln describes in brief the causes of the war, attributing it foremost to the one cause – slavery – that even he at times studiously avoided naming as the source of the Southern secession and the Northern efforts to maintain the Union. After all, he states, “Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding” (II.686). The resulting war was longer and more brutal than either side expected, yet throughout its prosecution each side appealed to the ultimate source in justifying its cause: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Yet, Lincoln expresses his (apparently mild) disapproval of the South’s attempt to harness God on the side of slavery in the subsequent line: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not lest we be judged” (II.687). One might think Lincoln was entitled here to a tone of far greater and more seering denunciation. Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent mildness of this one criticism of the South that finds expression at the end of a harrowing war, Lincoln is in fact articulating a profound critique of the South and is further engaged in a form of theological education of the South – and all Americans.

The Bible is a constant resource for Lincoln in his speeches and writings. While many scholars and amateurs alike have long debated Lincoln’s piety, there is no contending that he was not only knowledgeable about the Bible, but of much Christian and particularly Calvinist theology as well. For all of Lincoln’s apparent impiety, he nevertheless gave testament to the central truth of the Bible’s teachings. Upon being presented with a Bible in 1864 by the “Loyal Colored People of Baltimore,” Lincoln responded that the Bible “the best gift God has given to man” and further asserted that “but for it we could not know right from wrong” (II.628).

Nevertheless, the Bible is equally a work that he could seemingly dismiss for its elusive meaning. One sees this in particular in Lincoln’s response to what was termed the “pro-slavery theology,” namely the Biblically-grounded attempt to justify slavery. Responding to the view of some that slavery was in accordance with the will of God in a fragment entitled “On Pro-slavery Theology” tentatively dated in 1858, Lincoln averred that “certainly there is no contending with the Will of God; but there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases…. For instance …, [if] the question is ‘Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?’ The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation – the Bible – gives none, or at most, none but such that as admits of a squabble, as to it’s [sic.] meaning” (I.685). At first glance, this statement appears to be nothing other than a cheeky dismissal of any actual applicable “wisdom” in the Bible – a work that, six years later, he locates as the source of human morality. Can one square these sentiments?

In fact, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of these two statements are in perfect accord. Lincoln acknowledges that “there is no contending with the Will of God,” yet simultaneously recognizes that the will of God can only be imperfectly discerned in that very text where the infallibility of his will is revealed. The imperatives of God’s will are conveyed in a written work who’s meaning imperfect humans inevitably contest. By this understanding, God wills at once that we know His will to be incontestable yet that we are not equipped with sufficient knowledge or discernment to know with certainty all the particulars of His will. This recognition forces upon the devout an acknowledgement of the need for interpretive humility.

Interpretive humility, as it was articulated by Augustine, insisted at once upon the truth of Scripture and, because of the implications of that acknowledgement of God’s perfection and attendant human frailty, simultaneously insisted that we recognize the manifold ways in which the Bible can be read and understood. As understood and developed by Lincoln, this situation of interpretive humility necessitates as well an acknowledgement of subordinated equality. Because no one among us has a privileged or definitive understanding of Scripture, a practical implication is that no one among us is endowed with superior knowledge that can serve as the basis of a claim to rule. As Lincoln contends again and again, theocracy and slavery are both equally ruled out. Those who would enslave another on the basis of a reading of the Bible engage in a heretical activity of claiming an unavailable superiority. Lincoln does not hesitate to frame the debate with defenders of slavery in the starkest political and theological terms: “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it’” (I.810-11; “Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Alton”).

Those who would claim the food produced by the sweat of another man’s brow are effectively succumbing to the same temptation by Satan to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden: “This argument of the Judge [Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of your labor” (I.457, “Speech at Chicago,” 1858). Slavery, in effect, is a commission of the yet another version of original sin.

Returning to the Second Inaugural, in light of the theological understanding of the basis of subordinate human equality, one is forced to reassess the initial suspicion that Lincoln appears to offer only a bland statement to differentiate the two sides that have otherwise fought in a prolonged and savage war: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not lest we be judged.” Instead, particularly by reference to the first of two Biblical passages Lincoln cites in this sentence, one sees that he is engaged in a radical and far more sweeping critique of the South. If one can have sufficient ground to assert the wrongness of American slavery (given the various legitimate interpretations that can be drawn from the Biblical source), it is surely on account of the outrageousness of asking “God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Here, by means of a reference to the expulsion of mankind from Eden (Genesis 3:19), Lincoln points out that the slaveholding South – by attempting to overcome the burden that God places upon humanity in punishment for the commission of Original Sin – is in the first instance engaged in an attempt to resist humanity’s fallen condition in direct contradiction to God’s will. Further, resistance to God’s will in the name of God is a re-enactment of the original sin inasmuch as it is the claim by fallible humanity to the infallible knowledge that is at once based upon, and used to justify, the claim of human superiority over some other humans. The effort to enslave an inferior humanity based upon a superior reading of Scripture denies our common and equal “enslavement,” in the words of John Calvin in his interpretation of the third chapter of Genesis. The effort to resist God’s burden points more broadly to the attempt to deny man’s fallen nature. If the North can claim “superiority” in its cause against the South, it is not because of its greater “righteousness,” but rather because the North’s denial of the rightness of slavery reflects a greater humility in abiding by the will of God and through a greater acceptance of the condition of human fallenness.

Lincoln’s seering condemnation of the South appears superficially all the more bland due to the second Biblical passage: “but let us judge not lest we be judged.” Lincoln appears to retreat from a condemnatory judgment against the South, and even the ability to render any judgment, at precisely the moment when it appears most justified. Again, the Biblical context is revealing: drawn from Matthew 7, Jesus is not rejecting the capacity of judgment in favor of relativist uncertainty, but rather insisting that any judge must first judge himself by the same standard which he intends to use in the judgment of others: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7: ). Lincoln’s passive tone disguises not only his strong condemnation of the heretical assumptions underlying the South’s justification of slavery, but partially obscures a strong suggestion that even the righteous judge is tempted to avoid probing self-scrutiny of his own inevitable failings through an exclusive effort to cast blame upon the failings of others. Here Lincoln echoes one of his earliest statements against a condemnatory stance precisely because such a stance can obfuscate recognition of our own imperfections. He recommended instead that one seeks to reveal to another man his wayward actions “in the accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother…” (I.82). The attempt to escape the discernment of one’s own sinfulness – the very assertion of superiority even in the name of one’s greater humility – is no less subject to “judgment.” By means of this one sentence, Lincoln at once condemns the South’s justification of slavery yet places the North firmly within the scrutiny of God’s judgment.

Slavery was particularly heinous – indeed, likely among the worst sins that humanity could commit – because it was motivated by the temptation to the self-deceptive belief in our thorough independence. Traditional Augustinian doctrine held that God had differently endowed humanity with a multiplicity of talents so that humans would readily perceive the extent to which they were, by themselves, insufficient. An effort to escape from the necessity of work – the burden placed upon humanity for their transgression against God – could be understood as nothing less than an effort to “declare independence,” now from the necessary interdependence of all humans for each other, and of all humans upon the ultimate beneficence of God.

This understanding of the role that work is intended to play in fostering our understanding of each person’s insufficiency is captured with particular force in John Winthrop’s famous address aboard the ship “Arabella,” sometimes called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Indeed, there are such strong structural and thematic similarities between Winthrop’s Arabella speech and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural that it is likely that Lincoln based his later speech, if not directly upon Winthrop’s address, then almost certainly upon the same theological vision.

Counterintuitively, Winthrop begins his address with an apparent statement of human inequality: “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence hath so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.” If one read no further, one could perhaps rightly conclude that Winthrop endorses hierarchy and the permanent control of some by others as facts of life. Yet, Winthrop continues by attempting to understand such diversity in light of God’s purposes: the fact of pluralism, in current parlance, exists “that every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection.” Our differences are not an indictment against others whom we might regard as comparatively deficient from a terrestrial standard, but rather evidence of every person’s radical insufficiency. Nor can we claim our position on earth as a result of our own agency: “From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy, etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.” Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine did not permit the impious claim of ultimate human responsibility for a person’s respective position and accomplishments: all outcomes are the result of Divine Providence. The fact of radical human imperfection, fallenness, even depravity, does not permit claims of superiority over any element of society – since, in the eyes of God, all humans are equal in their insufficiency and sinfulness – nor, of course, does it permit the claim of ultimate human agency in the world, given the fact of thoroughgoing human dependence on divine beneficence and grace.

For Winthrop, the recognition of our shared insufficiency demands, above all, the Christian virtue of charity. God intends us to understand our diversity as evidence of a whole of which we are necessarily a part, and which must actively work to build: “we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” In light of our insufficiency and imperfection, and the resulting humility that results from that recognition, individuals are called upon to discern and accept their dependency upon others, to eschew viewing their positions as the result of their own efforts or as entitling them to exclusive enjoyment of the benefits accruing from that position.

Our equality is not necessarily evident to the senses in the most obvious way – some will still enjoy positions of higher rank and greater wealth – but it is instead evinced in the very fact of our difference. Rather than the existence of difference leading to a stress upon individual autonomy – pluralism as evidence of the priority of our right to the individual pursuit in fulfillment of our individual capacities – Winthrop insists that those very differences exist as a chastening reminder of the insufficiency and ultimate dependence of all humans, and as a call to view one’s position as a contingent blessing that demands of us strenuous efforts on behalf of those who are not so well-positioned. At the same time, it is a reminder to those who are less-well positioned that they are neither at fault for their station, nor ought their first instinct be toward resentment of others (though they are given good grounds for critique of those elites who give any hint of self-congratulation).

Winthrop’s is a strenuous reminder of what Timothy P. Jackson has called “an ethic of care.” Belief in personal independence, in this view, is severely moderated inasmuch as such individuality can only arise meaningfully as the result of the cultivation that takes place in light of a recognition of prior dependence: “relatively ‘independent’ persons do not just happen; they require cultivation and protection, especially when very young. Any society that cannot attend to this dependency will treat autonomous persons like ‘manna from heaven’ and thereby fail to support the necessary conditions for the emergence of its own citizenry.” Gratitude and charity, not a belief in our self-creation, are the appropriate responses to this recognition of our frailty.

Lincoln echoes these very sentiments articulated by Winthrop, albeit now in light of the American national community, and in the shadow of the existence of the Civil War and the persistence of slavery and its legacy in American history. Like Winthrop, Lincoln begins with a chastening of American pretensions to independence – Southern and Northern alike. He insists that human efforts take place in light of God’s purposes, not vice-versa. Alluding to his earlier reference to the now-abandoned shared belief in an “easier triumph,” Lincoln broods – as he did throughout the course of the war – upon the significance of the war’s duration and carnage:

"The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to the man from whom the offence cometh!' If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.' [II.687]

In spite of the justness of the North’s cause against the willful resistance to original sin committed by the South, the war had continued for so long, and with such enormous suffering on both sides, that Lincoln increasingly concluded that even the North – and he personally – could not be certain of God’s intentions in allowing a righteous war to continue. Without casting into doubt his belief that the North should continue to prosecute the war “with firmness in the right,” he did open space between his belief in that rightness – born of itself of humble acknowledgement of human limits and imperfect equality of perception – and God’s understanding of those like actions. Thus, he qualified his call for “firmness” with an acknowledgment, “as God gives us to see the right.”

In a series of reflections, including his “Meditation on the Divine Will” and his correspondence with Eliza P. Gurney, Lincoln, increasingly came to view the war as itself a glass through which the will of God could be discerned only darkly. He strongly acknowledged his belief in the righteous Providence of God in 1864 to Eliza Gurney, “the purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance” (II.627). These latter sentiments echo his 1862 words in his “Meditation on the Divine Will” that God’s and man’s intentions were likely distinct: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet, human instrumentalities, working as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose” (II.359).

Lincoln’s sense of a divide between God and man throws into stark relief human insufficiency: even so awesome an undertaking as the American Civil War, resulting in the death of over 600,000 men and untold destruction, may not mean quite what its actors believe it does. At the same time, Lincoln tentatively concludes that God may once again – as he did after the original sin in the Garden of Eden – be placing a terrible burden upon American, even all humanity, because of the sin of American slavery. After having briefly (and seemingly mildly) chastised the South’s attempt to justify slavery on Biblical grounds, Lincoln thereafter insists that slavery was a national sin, one that will be repaid by the whole country, perhaps for as long as it exists.

Too often Lincoln’s acknowledgment that God had laid a terrible burden upon the North and South alike is understood to be a reflection of Lincoln’s belief in a vengeful God. Such a view was the very opposite, however, of that held by Calvinists. As by Calvin’s in his interpretation of God’s curse of Adam and Adam’s sons, the burdens placed upon humanity are not the result of God’s vindictive will to punish, but rather a harsh but necessary kind of teaching to an obdurate and recalcitrant sinful humanity. As Calvin writes of Genesis 3,

"They who meekly submit to their sufferings, present to God an acceptable obedience ... that knowledge of sin which may teach them to be humble.... But they who imagined that punishments are required as compensations, have been preposterous interpreters of the judgments of God. For God does not consider, in chastising the faithful, what they deserve; but what will be useful to them in future; and fulfils the office of a physician rather than of a judge.... If we duly consider how great is the torpor of the human mind, then, how great its lasciviousness, how great its contumacy, how great its levity, and how quick its forgetfulness, we shall not wonder at God's severity in subduing it. If he admonishes in words he is not heard; if he adds stripes, it avails but little; when it happens that he is heard, the flesh nevertheless spurns the admonition. That obstinate hardness which, with all its power opposes itself to God, is worse than lasciviousness."

Harsh as it sounds, Lincoln came to accept the view that the Civil War was a horrible re-enactment of God’s curse on Adam as a constant and necessary reminder to sinful humans – ones inclined to repeat original sin in their effort to escape from the burden of work, in denying their dependence, and in claiming false self-sufficiency, through the enslavement of other human beings. It was a lesson being meted out to North and South alike, since both had benefited from the sin of slavery, and both were equally inclined to view their position as in thorough accordance with the will of God.

That the North, by the end of the war, had come to believe that God was on its side and that God’s favor upon America was evident in the North’s victory, was itself a further reminder of human inclination to sinful overestimation of its own powers. The belief that God smiled upon the North – widely held by America’s leading theologians at the Civil War’s culmination – has been characterized by Mark Noll as “a morally juvenile view,” and contrasted to Lincoln’s more mature and subtle injection of doubt whether Americans should understand themselves as God’s chosen people and whether such belief doesn’t in fact re-enact the first sin of humankind.

Horace Bushnell, for instance, celebrated the Northern victory by declaring that “the sense of nationality becomes even a kind of religion.” Noll differentiates most theologians from Lincoln on two grounds: “Almost universally they maintained the long-treasured axiom that the United States had enjoyed, and would continue to enjoy, a unique destiny as a divinely chosen people. The war, they held, had decisively reconfirmed this calling. Second, the theologians continued to speak as if the ways of providence were transparent, as if it were a relatively easy matter to say what God was doing in the disposition of contemporary events. Moreover, what was clearly seen could also be controlled.... On these points, the chorus of theologians sang with one voice.” Using the platform of the Presidential inaugural podium, Lincoln gently but firmly reprimanded not only the South’s sinful hubris, but the North’s growing and disturbing sense of triumphalism.

Having leveled human belief in its thorough agency and ability to control events – much as Winthrop razes human pretensions and self-deception of its own accomplishments – Lincoln, like Winthrop, begins his peroration with a call for charity:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." [II.687]

Lincoln’s is more than a statesmanlike call to move beyond the bitterness of the war – though it is certainly that. Rather, it retraces the movement, followed in Winthrop’s speech as well, from the bitter fruit of humanity’s fall and the accompanying situation of insufficiency and depravity, to the possibility of redemption through love. The call for charity, in Lincoln’s theological understanding, follows intimately and necessarily upon the recognition of our universally shared insufficiency. Our primary condition is one of need. The weakest and most forlorn – widows and orphans – are clearly most in need, and charity is our fitting response. But, in Lincoln’s more encompassing theological understanding, we are all roughly in the same position as widows and children – we are all equally bereft of the ability to fend for ourselves, equally deprived of any true form of self-sufficiency. We are all, like children, created and frail; and, like widows, ultimately bereft of those we love most.

From a God’s eye view – to which the Second Inaugural at times aspires, even while recognizing such a perspective is unattainable by any human – humans are radically equal in their insufficiency. To attain the conditions of life, to make possible a decent society and the flourishing of human beings individually and collectively, to make peace and even the aspirations for justice a reality, in the first instance society must be suffused with a spirit of charity. It is through the very chastening of the allurement of belief in our thorough agency, our ability to transform ourselves, our insistence that humanity individually or collectively controls its own destiny, even that redemption is possible through politics if it can only be arranged in a manner compatible with human potential for perfection, that the priority of sacrificial love can take its rightful place. On those grounds true human equality, and democratic endurance are rendered possible.

In a fragment tentatively dated in 1858, Lincoln stated his “idea” of democracy: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” (I.484). While apparently a hidden syllogism, and clearly stating a principle of reciprocity, politically it is far from obviously true. The first impulse of one who would not be a slave is not necessarily that he would instead refuse to be a master, but rather, it might well be concluded that mastery would be the best protection against enslavement. While it is possible that an Hobbesian calculus lies in the background of this statement – that it might be in the ultimate interest of all parties to eschew slavery, lest one be so unfortunate as to be enslaved by a stronger party – in light of the preceding discussion, it is revealing that Lincoln’s assessment is undertaken purely in reference to himself alone. It does not reflect, in the first instance Lincoln’s ultimate fear of potentially a stronger human capable of mastering him, but rather a refusal to become a master in light of his unwillingness to be a slave. Master and slave are brought here closely into alignment: to be a slave is to be subject to powers that one cannot control.

In classical and Christian conceptions, to be a slave is not merely to be subject to the domination of another human; internally, it is possible to be subject of one’s instinctual appetites, such as pleasure, sloth, the will to tyranny. To seek to be a master is to be a slave to one’s will to mastery; to assert one’s unwillingness to be a slave to one’s worst appetites is to refuse the possibility of mastery: it is to master the will to master, and to thereby reject the inclination to enslave others. Democracy, by this understanding, is not justified as a contractual arrangement in which we avoid mastery out of fear of our own enslavement – yet internally remain attracted to mastery in theory, if not in fact – but, rather, consists more fundamentally of a mastery of our internal propensity to believe ourselves to be unequal and the rejection of our will to mastery. Lincoln’s “idea” of democracy is a belief in the “proposition” of “the capability of the people to govern themselves” that is itself ultimately premised upon the capability of each individual to govern the ineradicable human inclination to inequality based upon a false belief in our individual self-sufficiency (I.34).

Lincoln’s culminating speech seeks to temper the impious belief in personal or national superiority, and thereby chasten the human temptation toward individual or national self-glorification. While Lincoln called the United States “the last, best hope on earth,” it was in light of his recognition that Americans were an “almost chosen people.” His high estimation of America – one held throughout his life – was not because, in his view, America was “superior” to other nations because of its greater approximation to God’s will, but because, as a democracy, it was organized politically in recognition of the fact that man was not, nor could become, God. Even at his most patriotic and triumphal moments, Lincoln was cognizant that the “superiority” of democracy rested most fundamentally upon the humble recognition of human imperfection. Thus, even in his earliest address – “Address to the Young Man’s Lyceum” – Lincoln proclaims America’s greatness in the context of acknowledging the division between God and man: “Let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (I.36, Lincoln’s italics). Citing Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus “establishes” his Church on earth, Lincoln acknowledges that America is subordinate to “the only greater institution,” the rule of God. American democracy is superior to the world’s monarchies and tyrannies because of its basis in equality, and that basis in equality is based upon a shared understanding of our common subordination and the concomitant call for charity born of a humble acknowledgement of our shared lack of self-sufficiency.

Following his second inauguration, Lincoln wrote to an admirer that “men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth that needed to be told, and as whatever humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it” (II.689). His “humiliation” is a result of his recognition of a divide between humanity and God: that acknowledgement is the source of his own humility, a reminder of his own human, all-too-human inclination to believe himself to be in control of human destiny. From the starting point of that acknowledgment arises the source of humility that animates and justifies democracy. The rejection of that recognition, at its most extreme, underlie the Southern practice of enslaving “inferiors”: shorn of an appropriately “humiliating” understanding of their own frailty, slave-holding America denied the well-spring of democratic belief.

Lincoln indicates that the necessary source of this “humiliation” is an acknowledgment that “God governs the world.” By this, Lincoln strongly suggests that the acceptance of the revealed existence of God is the fundamental premise upon which democracy rests. This understanding of democracy – while sometimes advanced by some among the more vociferous religious and even secular figures in today’s culture wars – will, for many, be as unwelcome coming from the modest and reasonable Lincoln as from self-righteous Bible-thumping preachers. And rightfully so – I would not like to think that democracy rests upon an orthodox religious belief. Yet, those who resist the ground premise of Lincoln’s assumption, as expressed in this late letter, at the very least should feel compelled ask themselves if, in the absence of a shared religious understanding as that expressed by Lincoln, whether they share implicitly or explicitly a different faith in its place – a “democratic faith” that implicitly raises humanity to the position of God and understands democracy as a vessel of salvation and redemption. Further, does the “democratic faith” have the resources of chastening self-introspection, the rejection of personal and national self-aggrandizement, and the strong endorsement of charity that are articulated in Lincoln’s understanding of democracy? Today’s democrats of all stripes, of all sects and all churches, of all creeds and all faiths, must subject themselves equally to the same question asked by Lincoln: do we harbor a sense of democratic self-satisfaction that is closely aligned to a belief in the possibility of mastery and dominion – whether of other humans, nature, or even ourselves – and does not such a belief ultimately threaten to undermine democracy? If we ask that of ourselves, then the chastening words of friendly critics of democratic faith such as Lincoln will have been enough, without demanding the last full measure of devotion.

What Is Political Philosophy?

This is the title of a famous essay by Leo Strauss. It is a perennial question for political theorists who occupy a peculiar place in the constellation of the modern academy. It is a question of renewed importance in this time, a time that may spell the passing of a century-plus arrangement and the a-borning of something quite new.

Political philosophy, Aristotle argued, was "architectonic" - the "master science" that governed all the other practical sciences (i.e., those "sciences" that had to do with human things, and thus, were not reducible to exactitude). It was "architectonic" because politics shapes and frames the other ways of organizing human life, such as economics ("household management"), military affairs, social arrangements, etc. (for Aristotle, it even influenced the human relationship to the divine, since most forms of religion in pre-Christian antiquity were a form of civil religion. While Christianity changes this equation - and thus places theology as a competitor to political philosophy, it was Aquinas who gave them a place of relative importance, attempting to combine the truths of reason and faith).

Political philosophy is thus at its most comprehensive a reflection on the organization of the whole of human society. It is both retrospective and forward-looking, taking into account what has been, what is, and what may yet be. The "discipline" of political philosophy was, for all practical effects, begun by Plato, who - particularly in the Republic and the Laws - sought to explore wholly different ways of organizing human communities that would in different ways accord with justice and/or our nature (these two things may not, and perhaps are not, wholly the same). Political philosophy is radical - going to the root of things - not bound by what is, but also necessarily cognizant of what has been and what is likely to be possible.

Political philosophy in our time was eventually incorporated into the discipline of political science, but it has always been an odd and uncomfortable partnership: political science is, at its most ambitious, the effort to predict certain outcomes of existing political arrangements, and at its most mundane and frequent manifestation, an effort retrospectively to explain why certain political things happened as they did (most political scientists if pressed will justify their discipline in terms of predictive ability, but most of their work is that of explanation of past events: they rarely if ever think deeply over whether explanation of discrete past phenomena can be predictive in human affairs in the same way that they may be in the natural sciences). Political philosophy is willing to raise questions about the very basis of how things are done, while most political scientists labor in the fields of things that are, only with difficulty raising their eyes beyond the horizon. They regard political theorists as imprecise and impractical, as an historical anomaly that has been allowed to persist in an increasingly rationalized academy. There are occasional efforts to eliminate the field (e.g., most recently at Penn. State University), or to make it the handmaiden of political science (i.e., "normative" political theory - raising questions that can be "operationalized" by political scientists). Some political theorists are even calling for the elimination of their own field, convinced of its imprecision and impractibility.

In recent years, I would argue, political theorists have increasingly become shaped by the forces that now dominate the modern academy. They have become increasingly specialized and largely write for fellow political theorists - or, more likely, a small subset of fellow experts in their field of political theory. An emphasis on professional training in graduate programs and avenues for hiring and career advancement place special stress on specialization and a kind of clannish building of coteries who speak to each other and not further. The field has splintered into many varieties and methodological approaches, all accomplished in their own way in their ways and approaches, but few that could be said to be attempting to achieve the kind of "architectonic" status that Aristotle argued was the hallmark of political philosophy. Indeed, it could be certainly argued that the demands and constraints of the modern academy have made the kind of comprehensive political philosophy almost impossible to achieve within its confines. A generation ago we saw the like ascent of the likes of Strauss, Berlin, Arendt, Wolin, Kojeve, Schmitt and others. In related fields, we encountered MacIntyre and Niebuhr. Today we seem to have epigones of epigones, but exceedingly few distinctive voices that seem capable of such architectonic vision. One must look largely outside the academy, or in tucked away places within the academy (more likely in our liberal arts colleges than our "top" research universities) for such thinkers, though I am hard pressed to think of many.

This is of special concern at this moment because political philosophers become of utmost importance in times of great crisis and change. Their vision (to adopt a term used often by Sheldon Wolin) makes possible to think in new ways, to conceive differently from prevailing forms. The political theorist Jeffrey Isaac noted some years ago that political theorists were largely silent about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, wholly isolated and disinterested in that world-historical event. Today political theory hums along doing what it has done so well for a number of years - churning out unread and unreadable academic papers - but has very little to say about our current moment. Either comfortable in their secure academic positions or desperately striving to achieve advancement within the academy, they have largely focused their attention on pleasing their academic peers while generally ignoring so many of the warning signs of the last few decades - ones that the vision of a political theorist might have had special insight into exploring and explaining.

Above all, political philosophy in its classical forms was not a domain for the special academic elect. Its foundational texts are still the texts that are regarded as essential for a well-educated - but not specialized or specially trained - human being. Plato and Aristotle; Augustine and Aquinas; Machiavelli and Bacon; Hobbes and Locke; Mill and Marx; Tocqueville and Nietzsche - these and others are the basic texts that we must all read and to some extent master to complete our apprenticeship in our fields. These texts speak in the broadest sense of the human condition, and in ways that are generally accessible to any intelligent and inquisitive human, without special training or background.

We enter a moment in modern history when the vision and insight, the comprehensive perception of political philosophers is all the more needed than in over half a century. Perhaps it is the times more than anything that give rise to such vision - context, more than anything, affords what is needed - but in the meantime we have largely disfigured a generation of political thinkers in ways that make it incapable for most to reflect in the deepest way about our current moment. They slept as deeply and blissfully as the wider population. Some perhaps will awaken now, but few with the capacity to speak beyond the narrowing walls of the academy. Others will doubtlessly arise outside its pernicious influence, infusing perhaps our academics with a renewed vigor and willingness to grapple with our deepest failures.

Above all what is needed is a re-engagement with the great texts and authors of our tradition - that retrospective and serious engagement with the various alternatives that have been explored throughout human history and a deep reflection on those alternatives. Our universities have been deeply infected with the mania for progress and - as equally as the rest of the populace - the belief that something could be had for nothing. Even still there is deep self-deception about our future, the belief that a few technical and economic tweaks can put us back on our accustomed course. Its denizens have been as deeply self-deluded as the rest of the culture, and show little signs yet of realization that much must be re-thought.

What is political philosophy? It is a way of seeing, further and deeper, beyond what is but deeply informed by what has been. We may yet see its rebirth, but it will largely be in spite of, and not because of, features of the modern academy. And this is certainly not at all a bad thing at all.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Against Authoritarianism, Rightly Understood

Damon Linker at TNR attacks Andrew Bacevich's recent response to Sam Tanenhaus's essay on the demise of conservatism, and more broadly various iterations of what he calls "paleo-conservatism" (including, I'm somewhat honored to note, a link to this "blawg," as well as to the writings of Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison). In particular, he seeks to warn of the dangers of authoritarianism that he detects lurking at the heart of this "radical" philosophy.

Linker engages in no little amount of misdirection and sleight of hand by attempting to link arguments by Bacevich - including his critique of American irreponsibility in the realms of personal morality, finance, and militarism - exclusively with aspects of Catholicism that, for him, represents the end station on the road the "paleos" propose we travel. The attempt to forge this link is so strained that it really doesn't deserve much further comment. That he thinks a critique of moral, financial and military irresponsibility - aimed at conservatives and liberals alike - can be dismissed by attempting to paint on it the facade of Church scandal reveals most deeply Linker's fears that he can't really argue with the substance of Bacevich's points.

Still, there is an important point in Linker's argument that does bear consideration - namely, that "paleo" conservatism (a term I don't at all like, in large part because it suggests something that was large, lumbering, is now extinct, and had small brains to boot) has at its base an authoritarian dimension. It is peculiar to be painted with this brush, particularly given the widely shared mistrust toward centralization and "bigness" that pervades the thought of the arguments that Linker points to. Critiques by Bacevich, Larison, and others against the pervasive military mobilization and imperial ambitions of America hardly seem an endorsement of authoritarianism. Arguments for fiscal responsibility, for thrift and living within one's means may strike some as "authoritarian," but I think most would conclude that it would be preferable to our current financial situation. Linker's fears of authoritarianism would seem to boil down to his fears that someone will seek to restrain him from exercising personal moral (and, based on his examples, specifically sexual) license. This is an argument always certain to rally liberal forces, as certain as demands to rein in "judicial tyranny" are sure to energize conservatives. But it really, really misses the point.

The three examples - not exhaustive - offered by Bacevich are deeply connected. Each of them speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority - how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? - but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

What Linker further misses is the extent to which the three are connected. The personal liberties we seek to enjoy rest upon, and are made extensively possible by, a growth economy. The success of the financial system as currently ordered rests extensively upon the expansion of the State, and thus, its military capabilities. This was an argument made long ago by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, the book that fundamentally redefined the concept of "republicanism" away from its ancient Aristotelian and Ciceronian forms - with a stress upon res publica, or "public things" - to one in which the polity is ordered in a manner to guarantee sufficient power and stability for its populace to attain the things it wants - that is, private liberty. Machiavelli understood that ancient republics could not achieve the conditions necessary for private liberty, being neither rich nor powerful enough to afford the stability or prosperity that made widespread private liberty possible. Rather, he argued on behalf of a new form of republicanism - modern republicanism - that was premised upon expansion and dominion. It rested on the two pillars of dominion - the mastery of nature and the exercise of power over a wide expanse of territory, a trajectory of expansion that, in fact, could know no natural limits. The project of expansion was the only option for modern republicanism, for not to expand was to become subject to the expansionist designs of other regimes. Expand, or die. Expand, and be free.

The irony of this argument - one that underlies the thought of aspects of our own Constitutional system - is that the very achievement of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of public power. We do not necessarily experience this form of public power as "authority" in the traditional sense, but surely it orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of. The power that is now wielded by central governments in the modern industrialized world goes far beyond anything that has ever existed before, and we come daily to rely more and more upon its increase of power in order to sustain our pursuits of private liberty. We are, of course, seeing this with renewed clarity in the daily increase of government power and authority in the realms of military and financial activity, resulting in ever-greater concentration of power for the sake of our capacity to live as thoroughly as possible lives defined by private liberty. The State will demand ever more power to sustain this self-centered aim, and in our incapacity to conceive of a different form of liberty - based in self-government - we assent to its continued concentration and expansion. What awaits us at the end of this road is too horrific to contemplate.

Working within this reigning paradigm, all obstacles to the achievement of private liberty represent unnatural and undesired restrictions upon one's liberty. All restraints are considered to be repressive authority - even, were it possible to conceive, if it were exercised by oneself. The paradigm only can operate along a spectrum of "unrestrained" or "oppressed," wholly oblivious to the alternative capacity of self-rule. Again, the irony is that self-rule is the means of preventing and thwarting the expansion of the military-industrial State. It is, in fact, the greatest avenue of preventing the likelihood of an all-encompassing Leviathan. Such an alternative conception of liberty is deeply premised upon the very anthropology that Linker claims it to be uncognizant of - our propensity to "depravity," including self-deception, pride, greed, self-aggrandizement and a willingness to reduce good to those things reducible to the monadic body. A culture that would seek to reign in our propensity to depravity would not rest either on private liberation nor "authoritarianism," but the inculcation of the faculties and abilities of self-government. Only one who seeks private liberty in all respects would regard such cultivation of self-government as oppressive, and would ultimately have to face the reality that such thoroughgoing private liberty is purchased by means of the expansion of public power and a truly frightening prospect of authoritarianism. Already we can see that much of the American public would be willing to sacrifice liberties in the name of sustaining a growth economy that encourages near-infinite, but never fulfilled, personal satiation. This, however, is not liberty.

It is time to think differently and beyond this reigning paradigm: to think of liberty in terms of self-government; to consider that freedom is best preserved when institutions are smaller and less concentrated with destructive power; to live within the means that nature affords, without seeking its pillage or mutilation; to act with stewardship and responsibility in the world and toward our neighbors and future generations. There is one part of Linker's argument that I hope is right: that arguments such as these "may gather force over the coming years." That's change I can believe in.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Protecting Work

In yesterday's New York Times, the economist Gregory Mankiw trots out the standard case against protectionism - i.e., policies that are designed to protect domestic jobs, not promote their flight overseas - one that is made as if it were so dispositive that nothing further can or should be said. Against arguments that job loss is undesirable, he writes, "There is, however, another side to the story. The loss to American producers comes with a gain to the many millions of American consumers who prefer to pay less for the goods they buy."

An implicit cost-benefit analysis underlies this argument: the loss of some number of decent paying manufacturing jobs can't measure up to the benefits of cheaper products for millions of Americans. Proof is in the Wal-Mart pudding: fact is, lots of people shop there, proving that they like cheaper prices. The loss of our manufacturing base is a small price to pay for inexpensive salad-shooters and tube socks.

Why is this argument so patently true for economists that it is proffered as if it didn't merit further thought? Because, of course, it's better when lots of people can purchase cheap goods that are manufactured in the lowest labor-cost areas of the world. Comparative advantage insists that everyone wins in this scenario. This may be true - as far as the economic theory is concerned, a theory that is populated not so much by humans as "econs."

Yet, what if we were to widen our aperture a bit and consider whether a nation of self-defined consumers is a good thing? What if the very self-definition of ourselves as "consumers" - now used unselfconsciously as the one universally valid term to describe Americans (not "workers" and certainly not "citizens") - is deeply damaging to the civic and moral culture of a nation? What if economic and political policies that promote consumption over good, hard work induce very bad habits that in turn lead to very bad economic outcomes? Would we praise that as good economics, much less good politics or even - dare I say - good for the soul?

The economics of consumption is, in the first instance, a recipe for short-term thinking. It encourages the consumption of products intended very soon for the trash heap, thus promoting a culture of immediacy and waste. It is an ethic that encourages instant gratification, rather than encouraging virtues of thrift and deferred gratification. It encourages a false sense of needing to "keep up" with the neighbors, such that everyone must live as if they have a country estate in Connecticut (and why eventually Martha Stewart began peddling her wares in K-Mart). It encourages us to ignore the hidden costs of our consumption, particularly the high energy usage of this form of consumerism and the high quantities of resulting entropy - in the form of waste, blighted landscape, decimated downtowns and declining pride of work. It destroys community, increases our anomie and isolation and makes us ripe pickings for government programs when there is an economic downturn.

A culture of work - good, honest, hard work - on the other hand, promotes virtues of care and thrift. Where we have a sense that people near and around us will use our products, we work with pride and responsibility. Where we will have to live with the costs of our production, we work in ways that minimally damage our living places. Where we earn an honest wage for work well done, we spend responsibly, knowing that we in turn can rely on the good craftsmanship of the products that we buy. We value quality over quantity. Where we learn to delay gratification, we learn to distrust easy credit as something too good to be true, as a game for grifters and cheats. A culture that values work over consumption is one that is likely to view manias with a jaundiced eye, aware that the cycle of nature is not one that offers quick rich rewards, but slow and steady earnings that are come by honestly and with patience and hard work.

Am I suggesting that we should engage in protectionist policies? I don't know what the economic effects of that would be, though I'm told they would be dire. Still, I look around me and see what the our policies of open trade and globalization have gotten us and ask, how much more dire would they be? Would we be poorer than we are now? Perhaps, but it would not be a poverty recklessly and dishonestly achieved. Would we have less things filling smaller houses? Let us hope so. Would we be bemoaning the things we did not have as a result of not having let all our good jobs go overseas? Maybe. I wonder. But I do know for certain that anyone suggesting that a culture of consumption is so plainly superior to the alternative had better take a step outside the ivy gates for a reality check.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liberalism Discredited

It has become a trope, or "meme," that the dismal ending of the failed Bush presidency marks the demise of modern conservatism overall. Liberalism is revived and regnant, ready to lead where conservatism failed.

This "meme" should be nipped in the bud: conservatism was never tried. A version of liberalism was implemented, particularly a toxic combination of Wilsonian visions of remaking the world combined with a particular brand of laissez-faire economics that gave particular favor to Bigness. BOTH of these pursuits, perfectly combined during the Presidency of George W. Bush, but present in various iterations throughout the years of Republican rule, are purely distilled varieties of liberalism.

We called it "conservative" because it wasn't the more potent version of Statism. However, all the same, it relied upon basic liberal assumptions of self-interest, privatism, large and centralized government and growth economics that place a stress upon large scale, mobility, debt, and consumption.

Conservatism's name is now tarnished, perhaps as completely as liberalism's was in the years following Carter. Ironically, liberalism eventually adopted a more accurate name - "progressivism" - as a strategic response to the negative connotations of the word "liberal" (almost impossible, for a time, to say without a sneer).

So, I ask - is it time to retire for a time the label "conservative," good and true as it is? What could take its place - indeed, what might be just as accurate as its counterpart, "progressivism"? Are there any native labels that might be revived, or new ones that could have resonance? While Shakespeare could ask, "what's in a name," we know that in politics much lies in successful naming. Just ask the "Anti-federalists."

Christian Democrats? Conservative Christian Anarchists (Henry Adams's choice)? Communitarians? Populists? Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson's party)? Suggestions?

Or, should those who rightly consider themselves conservators of traditions that eschew many of the deepest presuppositions of liberalism - particularly various religious adherents - attempt to reclaim the label? In which case, what, exactly, are they conserving, if all the dominant varieties of American political expression are essentially versions of liberalism? It's a puzzler, that's for certain.