Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why did Birzer get borders wrong?

I'd like to return to the topic of Bradley Birzer. If you recall from my recent post, he is the American conservative who called, in the most stringent terms, for open borders:
Even the most cursory examination of the issue reveals that the best of western thinkers have considered political borders a form of selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person. The free movement of peoples has not only been seen as a natural right throughout much of the western tradition, but it has also been seen as a sacred one.

I don't want to focus on rebutting his specific claims as I did this in my last post, and others have done the same thing admirably well. What needs to be addressed is why Birzer would come to adopt this stance. Rather than being a stock standard right or left liberal, Birzer is a professional Burkean/Kirkean conservative:
Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes The American Conservative. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and is Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He served as the second Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy at Colorado University–Boulder and is the author or editor of seven books, including Russell Kirk: American Conservative and J.R.R Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. He has written and taught extensively on the American experience, focusing mostly on the period from the American Revolution through Reconstruction. Birzer is also editor at large and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative.

In spite of a lifetime's service to Burkean conservatism, he has endorsed a policy that is more radically dissolving of society than the political positions held by a fair proportion of liberals. It is such an extraordinary outcome that we need to ask seriously what might have pushed things the wrong way.

I can think of several reasons, though I suspect the last in the list is the real culprit.

1. Burkean conservatism

Burke wanted to defend the existing culture and institutions of his time from modernist ideologies, particularly those associated with the French Revolution. And so he stressed the idea of accepting accumulated wisdom rather than following specific philosophies.

The late Lawrence Auster argued that the influence of Burkean conservatism was a flaw in American conservatism, as it only worked when the inherited tradition was a non-liberal one. Once liberalism starts to predominate in a culture, then Burkean conservatives will begin to defend that as the accumulated tradition:
As I’ve said many times, that’s the problem with Burke, as well as with Kirk, who was a Burkean. Burkean conservatism only works in a society that has an intact tradition to appeal to; in a society that has already been radicalized, Burkeanism merely accommodates conservatives to radicalism. This is why a conservatism is needed that doesn’t just appeal to “the way things are” (which may already be radicalized) but to “the way things ought to be”—to principles and values that may be lost at present and need to be brought back.

A traditionalist conservatism, it is true, can't be grounded on a simplistic ideology, but that doesn't mean that an alternative anthropology cannot be given voice to. After all, we are trying to give order to truths about man and reality: if we do not articulate these, because we think they will emerge by themselves over time within a community, then we fail to give any direction or coherence to conservatism - it become more difficult to hold to consistent political principles.

2. Anti-statism

Birzer appears to be part of a political stream that emphasises localism as opposed to centralism. I'm sympathetic to this outlook, not least because it gives the average man a polis in which to exercise his commitments to community (and in doing so more fully complete his nature).

I'm speculating, but it is possible that someone who conceives of politics too much as localism against centralism might not then give high regard to the role of a central state in upholding borders.

3. Christian theo-ideology

If I had to guess, I would say that this is the real reason for Birzer's hostility to borders. There are many Christians now who take one aspect of their religion (universal love) and apply the logic of this in a simplistic and abstracted way, so that Christian theology comes to resemble the workings of a secular ideology (hence the term "theo-ideology").

It's not that they are wholly wrong in what they claim. They argue that we are all made in God's image and therefore, for the sake of God, we should have a regard for others, even for the stranger.

But what happens next is crucial. You can either assert or deny that this then dissolves all particular loyalties, loves, duties, identities and attachments.

There are Christians who do assert this, often using a passage from Paul to support their case.

But if what they argued was true, then the particular loves and duties we have to spouse and children would no longer hold: those for the stranger would be equal or greater in significance. But this is both unworkable and un-Biblical.

The Catholic Church, until recent times at least, affirmed the particular loves and duties. From the duty of a Christian knight to defend his homeland; to the "ordo caritatis" which gave precedence in our duties to spouse and children; to the calls of the medieval Popes for crusades; and to the edicts of popes affirming the good of patriotism.

If, on the other hand, you believe that caritas means dissolving particular loves and loyalties, and no longer making distinctions between people, then Christianity itself won't survive as a mainstream religion. It will lead Christian nations to have open borders, so that the demographics shift to other religions. You can see how Christianity has rapidly declined in parts of the Middle East over the past century to get a sense of how a religion can be displaced from areas it was once deeply embedded in.

If readers have other explanations for why Birzer, with his impeccable Burkean credentials, might have adopted such a radical stance on immigration, I'd be interested to hear them.


  1. There is a self-serving trend to political ideology. I have economic incentive to benefit from a restricted labor supply, and resentments against foreign students being privileged above myself.

    Prof Birzer greatly desires "respectability", as does his collegiate institution. Commonwealth readers may not be aware of what Hillsdale College is. As higher learning institutes in the US go, Hillsdale is one of about three that are right-of-center. The others being Grove City College and Brigham Young University (Mormons). Many Ivy League faculties don't even have one single registered Republican Party member. Hillsdale desperately wants to escape the academic ghetto and be respected as an equal to the prestigious lefty institutions like Oberlin and Williams.

    A good place for context on this "respectability" desire is Peter Brimelow's hostile obituary towards his former boss William F. Buckley Jr.

    Birzer has been essentially gaslighted by his colleagues at peer institutions, because he works at (to them) a 'racist' college. Those in the Conservatism Inc. elite are willing to mislead and betray their core supporters in the futile chance of earning the "strange new respect".

    1. Tim, thanks, I was not aware of the political leanings of campuses in the U.S.

  2. There is also a connection between many of the Hillsdale faculty and administration to a Claremont College in Southern California. (Larry Arnn, etc)

    Claremont was once an implicitly right-liberal institution, but gradually fell to the leftist trend due to demographics. Many neoconservatives, such as Harry Jaffa, were prominent professors there, though all they have left today is a "think tank" that is basically just a letterhead.

    These academics have evidence staring them right in there face of what happens when demographics change, but they have their tenured sinecures.

  3. Christ commanded us to love our neighbour as ourselves, not to love him more than ourselves. In the small scale, if one had a bigger house than your neighbour, I don't see that as strictly compelling one to hand over one's house to your neighbour. If the roof of one's neighbour's house was leaking, one might offer to help fix it, if resources were available.

    Translated to the larger scale, is one obliged to hand over one's country?

    1. I'm no theologian, but I would have thought the injunction is a call to "goodwill to men", and, more particularly, that what you would have as a blessing and a good in your own life, that you would sincerely wish for others too.

      I don't think this implies a radical redistribution of goods. If it is manly to work hard to provide for your family, then you don't will this good to your neighbour simply by handing over your stuff. Isn't what matters to encourage your neighbour to the same virtue and the same blessings?

      Similarly, if it is a blessing to have a nation of one's own, with stability and a reasonable living standard, then this is what you would wish for others - rather than destroying your own national existence by inviting the world into your own nation, even if your own nation was relatively economically prosperous.

  4. There is only one plausible explanation for Birzers behaviour and that he is that he is very obviously a wolf in sheep's clothing. In essence a fraud.

    No form of conservative culture relies upon "accumulated wisdom", in itself a progressive form of wisdom subject to individual whims and variation. Conservative societies the world over are based upon ancient truths and wisdom and their manifestations via different religious practices. The primary institution of the society is the family which is the owner of the means of economic production and cultural transmission. The state is weak due to its limitations to the functions of defence of national sovereignty and internal enforcement of law and order. Its interference in family life and religious life is minimal.

    "Christians" who promote open borders are distorting the teachings of Christ who never called for the destruction of national sovereignty. Their theological distortions negate their Christian beliefs and hence they cannot be considered to be Christians at all.

    Localism as opposed to centralism does not necessarily reduce the involvement of the state in areas where it should not be and likewise, it does not necessarily enhance the role of the state in its essential fields of defence and law and order. Birzer's call for the state to desist from its primary role of policing its borders and repelling invaders is a call for the destruction of the state and its sovereignty with consequent loss of territory and anarchy.

    The USA is an ideological state run by oligarchs for the benefit of oligarchs who are intent on securing tyrannical power over their serf population and eliminating the white christian founding population who are the main obstacle to the achievement of this goal. The USA seeks to steel the resources of other nations and impose liberal tyranny on all as a means of eliminating organised resistance. It has brainwashed its citizens in this absurd and self destructive ideology to an extent that the majority have no capacity for independent thought and no understanding of what a traditional society is like. The inability of most of its citizens to travel outside of its borders enhances their ignorance and insulalarity. However Birzer cannot be so restricted in travel and limited in education to profess such a degree of ignorance and insouciance and the only logical conclusion which one can reach is that he is a radical liberal who has infiltrated an allegedly "conservative" institution.

  5. The late Lawrence Auster argued that the influence of Burkina conservatism was a flaw in American conservatism, as it only worked when the inherited tradition was a non-liberal one.

    Not just a flaw in American conservatism. Even in England in Burke's day the inherited tradition was firmly liberal, and had been since the Glorious Revolution. Burke's England was a liberal plutocracy. It was already too late for Burkean conservatism to work.

    1. That's an excellent point. I'm reminded of Goldsmith's poem, The Traveller, written in 1764. Goldsmith made a criticism in this poem of aspects of British character and culture; his criticisms are all to easy to understand today. He wrote:

      But foster'd e'en by Freedom, ills annoy:
      That independence Britons prize too high,
      Keeps man from man, and breaks the social tie;
      The self-dependent lordlings stand alone,
      All claims that bind and sweeten life unknown;
      Here, by the bonds of nature feebly held,
      Minds combat minds, repelling and repell'd;

      Nor this the worst. As Nature's ties decay,
      As duty, love, and honor fail to sway,
      Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
      Still gather strength, and force unwilling awe.

      Till time may come, when, stripped of all her charms,
      The land of scholars, and the nurse of arms,
      Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
      Where kings have toil'd, and poets wrote for fame,
      One sink of level avarice shall lie,
      And scholars, soldiers, kings, unhonor'd die.