Sunday, March 03, 2013

An inadequate formula for the right?

I haven't read much by Kenneth Minogue so please don't take what follows as a general criticism of his writings. It's a criticism of this particular passage:
My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.

No philosopher can contemplate this interesting situation without beginning to reflect on what it can mean. The gap between political realities and their public face is so great that the term “paradox” tends to crop up from sentence to sentence. Our rulers are theoretically “our” representatives, but they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up. The business of governments, one might think, is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves. Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches. But democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority—they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.
I don't think that's a place for the right to take a stand. It's true that nearly all of the right, including traditionalists like myself, want a smaller and less intrusive government. So on that point we find agreement.

But Minogue seems to be sailing close to something like a classical liberalism in the sentence that I bolded. It's an image of a society in which the government merely sets a framework of laws within which individuals then pursue happiness as they see fit.

What's wrong with that? I think it's a political orientation that is doomed to failure, for three reasons.

First, we humans are moral creatures. We wish to think that we are not just acting selfishly for our own happiness, but that we are acting rightly and upholding the good. After all, if it were just a case of my own individual happiness I could easily justify adultery, or neglecting my children, or any number of dishonesties.

So there are two problems with the idea that government should stay out of our lives so that we may "pursue happiness on our own account." First, it's likely to lead to a self-serving hedonism (which is unlikely to be entirely corrected by life as a teacher of virtue). Second, and just as importantly, it will fail to connect to the normal and healthy orientation that people have to what is right and good.

The left has been very successful in connecting to this orientation. The left has been superbly talented in taking people on an emotional journey centred on moral ideals of justice, equality and freedom. They have won conscientious people this way, in fact they have even managed to shift the moral imaginations of many serious Christians away from Christianity and toward liberalism.

A successful right-wing politics cannot abandon the field of moral idealism to the left and expect to prosper. We too should be asserting an understanding of justice and of public virtue (such as loyalty or piety or prudence etc). Unless we do this we allow the left to triumph unopposed.

Second, we humans are social creatures. This means that we are strongly influenced by the culture surrounding us and by the institutions of society. Realistically only a minority of people are able to act against the stream of society.

The left understands this and so has made a big push to influence the larger culture of society and to control the leading institutions of society. They've been highly successful in their aims; for instance, the schools and the universities are now probably 90% incubators of a leftist world view.

A successful right needs to be equally determined to hold on wherever it can to institutions and to influence over the culture of a society. If that means tenaciously rebuilding influence at the local level, then so be it. But the idea of just having people acting individually is no match for a left which understands the influence of culture and institutions; again, it leaves the left unopposed in a critical area of politics.

Third, it is misconceived to think of people acting only at an individual level to secure their happiness. Much of what is important to us requires a social setting that has to be defended at a public level. For instance, if we want to form a family successfully, then we need a culture of family life to be defended at a public level. Similarly, if our identity and our sense of belonging depends on the maintenance of a communal tradition, then we need that tradition to be defended at a public level.

It's no use having a view of life which focuses only on the things that people do individually for their own happiness. If you limit yourself to this, then what really have you got left to complain about? In practice, you're likely to be left complaining about the state interfering with your right to gamble, or smoke, or drink, or drive fast. In other words, you'll be left to complain about the existence of a nanny state - but you won't have the political vocabulary to take on the really big issues effectively. You won't be able to challenge the left when it comes to the larger social settings which make a full and complete human life possible.

For all these reasons, an effective right cannot limit itself to the idea of a neutral state maintaining social order whilst individuals go off and do their own thing. It leaves out too much and misunderstands the real driving forces of both the individual and society. It abandons critical areas of politics to the left.


  1. Classical liberalism (as envisioned in Anglo sphere countries such as Britain and the USA) has morphed, or directly leads to, modern liberalism.

    There is technically no differences in goals and worldview between classical liberals and modern liberals. It's the methods to implement their goals that are different.

    Most of them support modernity and the Enlightenment.

    There is no such thing as a vacuum. It will always be filled by something or someone. Today it is filled by the secular religion (yes secular religion) of liberalism.

    That's another aspect of modernity: it's quite secular, enlightened and modern yet religious (liberalism being the religion).

  2. The left understands this and so has made a big push to influence the larger culture of society and to control the leading institutions of society. They've been highly successful in their aims; for instance, the schools and the universities are now probably 90% incubators of a leftist world view.

    Interesting observation. Maybe this explains why I circulate around these parts of the blogosphere?

    I'm kind of asocial (and some believe that I have autistic tendencies) but most humans, say around 90-95%, are quite social.

    Moral and social creatures indeed.

  3. In sending the constant stream of improving (Leftist) messages, the government thinks it IS being accountable to the electorate - namely, the large percentage of the electorate who are Leftists. Leftists think the government SHOULD actively promote non-smoking, proper eating, non-hunting, diversity, etc., and the government is simply responding to this perceived need.

  4. You're right, Minogue is a "classical liberal," at least with regard to his politics. He believes that the state should not try to run people's lives, but should, rather, act as a referee enforcing some very basic rules of conduct. But he is not, so far as I know, opposed to other institutions constraining or directing people's lives. His hostility to the state does not carry over to a hostility to communities, churches, families, etc. In fact, his minimalist state model assumes that all of the intermediate institutions are flourishing. Of course, this assumption is unfounded today.

  5. Great post, Mark.

    I'd like to take up another point.

    "Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects."

    That implies that people can be left alone as long as "life" can be trusted to teach them harsh lessons if they deviate from the party line.

    That leaves open the possibility that when "life" is not teaching the right painful lessons the government does have a role, which might be educative or coercive, or might consist in arranging things so that "life" punishes as it should.

    "Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking?"

    Debt and excessive drinking carry their own punishments (except when the government steps in to bail out debtors and deprive creditors of their rights).

    But what about "prejudice"?

    By "prejudice" is meant preference for the company of one's own kind, which bitter experience often teaches us is the only way to be happy and safe in a community with a reasonable "us" spirit, while "lack of prejudice" means that we impose a dangerous and unpleasant lack of homogeneity on others, as long as they are white.

    This is settled science (known as the "bowling alone" effect); there is no opinion about it. The "unprejudiced" approved view is pure prejudice, in defiance of all facts, while "prejudice" is what people come to after bitter experience disabuses them of their preconceived "lack of prejudice".

    In this and other cases where the conventional wisdom is dead wrong, the people who do what nobody in academia or approved society would defend will happier, healthier, more prosperous, more moral, wiser and better off in every way, as individuals and as communities.

    (And on some level, most people know this, which is why the spreaders of received opinion live in ways and in neighborhoods that would be absurd if they really believed what they taught.)

    What then? This seems to be an "exceptional" case where the government needs to step in. (And any case where the received opinion is wrong and harmful will count as such an exceptional case.)

    How can it do that? Education and propaganda. Legislation and the actions of the courts. And "anarcho-tyranny", where the government deprives people of their freedoms while refusing to stop lawlessness, as long as it tends in a desired direction. For example, the government in South Africa does nothing to protect white farmers who are being killed off; rather it punishes self defense, limits the means of self-defense through a severe firearms control act, and suppresses collective defense, thus making the victims easy targets. By measures such as these, the government can see to it that "life" teaches bitter lessons to those it dislikes.

    I would like to see a more principled defence of basic rights than the blandly implausible assumption that the current conventional wisdom (which is killing every white country that subscribes to it) is so rarely and slightly wrong that nobody needs to worry about any hypothetical cases where liberalism insists "X is indefensible" but life, unassisted by state action, fails to follow the script. Maybe the exceptional case will turn out to be important enough and common enough to turn your theoretical paradise into a practical hell.

  6. What happens when "nobody would defend" male chauvinism, but life, unassisted by government action, shows couples who swing that way being comprehensively better off?

    Would that be another "exceptional" case?

  7. The French Revolution should have taught us forever that when zealots who take a theoretical view of human rights and a mock-naive and hostile view of existing customs based on actual human nature get control of the public discussion of virtue, and it turns out that their understanding of virtue is so lop-sided and unnatural that "virtue" so defined cannot triumph without terror, what happens next is not a repudiation of false definitions, an end to the pursuit of dissenters, and earnest rethinking.

    Once the zealots get control of the public discussion of good and evil, every deviation of reality from false theory is likely to be seen as "shocking!", "unacceptable!" and a special case where "something must be done!", regardless of what rights people ordinarily have.

    You can have your rights later and on other topics, where it's not an emergency.

  8. Lech Walesa Shocks Poland With Anti-Gay Words. Shocking! Unacceptable! Ostracize him, ostracize him!

    "From a human point of view his language was appalling. It was the statement of a troglodyte," said Jerzy Wenderlich, a deputy speaker of Parliament with the Democratic Left Alliance.

    "Now nobody in their right mind will invite Lech Walesa as a moral authority, knowing what he said," Wenderlich said.

    This too is "prejudice" which (among those who live by correct opinions) nobody will defend.

    The left goes into its great persecuting dance, (to the tune of Istanbul (Not Constantinople)...

    because it's racist, sexist and homophobic!
    racist sexist and homophobic!

    And of course everybody knows that this is how the game is played, and that the respectable right doesn't oppose the game but often jumps in to throw some kicks of its own.

    And that's why people know they can invent more taboos, on the model of what already works. "Homophobia" works? Then lets invent
    "Islamophobia"! And so on. We add irrational prejudices constantly.

    And yet, apparently, our security against government meddling will be that nature itself, life, will punish deviations from these absurd strictures, so there will be no need for the government to do so.

    I don't think so.

  9. Minogue in the quoted passage is indicating what he sees as undesirable for the citizen in modern Western government. He only touches superficially on what he sees as its proper role and says nothing at all about the good and how we are to achieve it among ourselves and all our institutions.

    Is it accurate to infer that he is a libertarian from this minimal bit of writing?


  10. Paul Elam, A Voice for Men- the biggest conjob in the MRA and disinfo agent

    A short commentary on MRA leaders

    The so called "Leaders" of the MRA area are lying to you all. They are telling you that governments make legislation that you HAVE to obey and that they can FORCE you to obey using the police FORCE. This is a lie. They know it is a lie. And they are telling you lies that they know are lies.

    The TRUTH is that legislation is NOT LAW and you do not have to obey ANY legislation. Here are links to videos that go into this in detail. This is not a new idea. Many people KNOW that legislation is not law and have been telling you so for a long time.

    The excuse offered is usually "well the guvment can hurt you if you do not obey" is just that. An excuse. The only reason that guvments do hurt men who do not obey is because men have TOLERATED these crimes and not formed new courts to put criminals in guvment on trial. Men only have themselves to blame.

  11. Is it accurate to infer that he is a libertarian from this minimal bit of writing?

    No it's not. In fact, from what I've read Minogue wrote a criticism of both classical and modern forms of liberalism.

    His alternative seems to have been a 'spontaneous' expression of society once the attempts of liberalism to socially engineer society had been removed.

    But I don't think he formulated things well in the passages I quoted. Or perhaps the problem is that you can't oppose a movement like liberalism with a desire for the "spontaneous" growth of society - you need instead to be determined to hold onto institutions and to deliberately influence the culture you belong to.

  12. I have read Mr. Richardson on Oz Conservative from time to time, and in this instance as in many others, I concur with his assessment. However, there is one thing in general that troubles me. Whenever a critique is provided about liberalism, and/or an exposition is provided about the advantages of traditional conservatism, the explanations provided are always so lofty and lengthy.

    I am not saying that they compare in any way to some exegesis or complex university-level discussion. However, what I am saying is that such explanations as provided on Oz Conservative and other similar sites will never appeal to the common citizen as he exists in the current Western informational/entertainment milieu.

    This is where liberalism has it all over conservatives. Progressives and the left in general have an absolute genius for condensing their ideas into effective memes, slogans, and analogies. Perhaps this has something to do with their conspiratorial efforts over the decades, starting with the Frankfurt School.

    I also understand that the left has almost complete control of the culture and media that delivers same. However, what we are now seeing is simply the result of an effective feedback loop put in place long ago, in which the left first attempted to impose a slogan, the media easily picked up on it, and the great unwashed masses some time thereafter regurgitated it back to complete the loop.

    Time after time I am led to these conclusions, and time after time I am effectively ignored or my thesis is watered down or sidetracked by other conservatives. I firmly believe that if there was a conservative think tank devoted to creating effective traditional memes, and/or if writers like Mr. Richardson could really get to the heart of their ideas in a few terse sentences, and if those sentences/slogans/what have you could then be picked up in non-apologetic unison by the West's conservative political leaders, then given but a little time and effort on everyone's part such traditional conservative ideas would then actually start to disseminate and take hold within the population.

    But, hey, what do I know???

  13. Ericcs,

    I agree that if we were seeking to influence large numbers of people we would have to do as you suggest and to come up with effective memes/slogans etc.

    Right now I'm not trying to get to the mass of people. I want to try to influence "mid-level political people", in other words, people with a real interest in politics but below the level of academic specialist.

    That's the level I'm trying to pitch at.

    The idea is that if you can get even a dozen or so people of this sort together in a local area that you're then in a position to take things further than you could as a single person with a meme.

    If you can't appeal to at least a minority of the mid-level political people (that sounds like a negative description but as I tried to explain I just mean those who aren't academic specialists) then I don't think you can expect to build over time.

  14. Great article Mark - one of my pet peeves with neocon writers is their constant complaint about the nanny state. I despise undue government interference in our lives too but the debate has been falsely framed. Unless society respects basic morality, some degree of nanny-state interference in our lives is inevitable and sometimes even necessary.

    To quote Eric Hoffer: "When freedom destroys order, the yearning for order will destroy freedom."

  15. Mark this is one of your finest. These things have been said before but your rendition is especially clear and understandable.

  16. I started reading the comment by ericcs, but then I scanned forward and saw that it was 5-6 paragraphs and was not just an easily digestible slogan, so I gave up after the first sentence.