Thursday, August 15, 2013

Brandis 3

I've been looking at an essay on liberal values by the Australian right-liberal George Brandis. Here's the next section:
Secondly, conservatism and socialism share a theory of social change which owes much to the dogma of historical determinism. Both believe that the forces which shape a society's development - whether those forces are understood according to the conservative's metaphor of society as an organism with its own spontaneous causes of growth and change, or the socialist's more formal theory of dialectical materialism - are impersonal and irresistible. Neither gives any place to human reason as a reconstructive social force. For both, the past determines the present and therefore limits the future. The socialist feels that he is the prisoner of the past; the conservative would like to think that he still lives there.

Liberalism, by contrast, simply rejects historical determinism. It asserts that individuals, acting rationally and with co-operative goodwill can consciously shape the future of their societies so as to avoid the errors of the past and correct the injustices of the present. The reconstructive spirit of liberalism was captured well by Robert Kennedy when he proclaimed that it was 'the shaping impulse' of a liberal society that 'neither fate, nor nature, nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, will determine our destiny'.

What does this tell us about Brandis? It suggests to me that Brandis does not feel a positive connection to the past. What matters for him is the idea of individuals rationally following a principle in order to create a just future. In this sense, the individual can only be acting against the past. The past is a kind of foil against which the rational individual sets himself.

I do think that Brandis has accurately described a liberal mindset in all this. Liberals have set themselves to create a new order based on the rational unfolding of a principle that aims at justice.

But there are major problems in taking this approach. First, a society is not built on the basis of a single, clearly enunciated principle. Any society faces the difficult task of coming to a sense of an "order of being" - an order which brings together the natural, the social and the spiritual aspects of life. There is no single principle which can express all of these things. What (ideally) happens instead is that a society gives rise over time to a culture which represents the best efforts of that society to reach a harmonious order of being.

Things are likely to go wrong if you seek to reorder society along the lines of a single principle aiming at justice. First, there is no such single "rational" principle. Second, the negative effect of adopting a false principle, as liberals have done, is radically heightened. Third, once you adopt such a principle there is no way to provide limits to its effects, as it becomes the sole organising principle of a society. The principle is likely to run to much more radical extremes over time than its originators ever intended.

Does this mean that Brandis is right when he claims that traditionalist conservatives do not give "any place to human reason as a reconstructive social force"? It's true that we reject the idea of radically breaking with the past in order to reconstitute society on the basis of an ideological principle. But it's not true that a culture, as an expression of an attempt to create an order of being, is frozen in time. Each generation tries to add to it, to improve and refine it, and this is partly an act of human reason (and conscience and creativity). Traditionalists do have a sense of justice and the good, and we do expect society to aim to measure up to this, but not as a singular, rationalistic principle that serves as its own starting point. We aim to carry forward a culture and a tradition and we look instinctively to the best of what our forefathers achieved to inspire us in reaching toward the good.

One final point. Brandis approvingly quotes Robert Kennedy speaking about "the shaping impulse" of liberalism, an impulse which overrides not only history but also nature. A traditionalist would never set reason against nature in a simplistic way. It's not that nature is sacrosanct. Anyone who has had children knows that they don't come ready civilised. Ruder aspects of their nature do have to be overcome. Even so, principle has to have regard for our created nature. You can't formulate principles about the way that human life is to proceed abstractly and without consideration for what humans are, for both better and worse, in their given natures.


  1. "We aim to carry forward a culture and a tradition and we look instinctively to the best of what our forefathers achieved to inspire us in reaching toward the good."

    The comment is too vague and sounds like a liberal trying to sound traditional. Aiming to achieve something does not work without a detailed strategy.

    The distinguishing characteristic of traditional societies is that they have a strategy for their survival and perpetuation. They don't leave the evolution of society to chance, ideology,fashion or whims. They carry the traditions of the past to the future and adapt to changes in environment and technology without compromise of underlying principles and traditions.

    2: FORMAL PROCEDURES: traditional societies have formal procedures and rituals for all major life events. Without formal procedures, major cultural and social traditions are left to chance.

  2. Brandis is in the grip of what Hayek called rationalist constructivism. Hayek thought it was the curious task of economists to show men how little they understand about what they imagine they can design. - Thucydides

  3. First anon,

    I don't get your comment. You told me that I sounded like a liberal because I didn't spell out a detailed strategy but then in your comment you didn't spell out a detailed strategy, you simply defined the word strategy.

    You have to take blog posts for what they are. I didn't write the post in order to spell out a strategy. It wasn't titled "Our traditionalist strategy". It was an attempt to briefly criticise a particular liberal concept of the individual and society.