Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Libertarians and Conservatives, Part Two

Mouldfan has noted that the discussion on this topic has focused largely on the political side of this debate rather than the philosophical. Okay, here comes a bit of philosophical politics.

Timothy Sandefur, as mentioned a few days ago, offered up his very own definition of conservatism. He begins by stating
Conservatism, rightly understood, is a political philosophy characterized by the writings of, e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, and Robert Bork. It holds that the individual is essentially a communal being—a part of an organic social whole, whose personality is molded by the society in which he is born
Essentially correct, but then he adds
He does not belong to himself, but rather belongs to society. His proper role is as an unselfish partner with his neighbors, and his family, and in service to his God and his society. Individualism, capitalism, atheism, science, are all disruptive tendencies, because they break the historical, traditional, predictable bonds that connect people to one another.
Eh. Well, there is an element of truth to all that he has written, but the first sentence, which I have bolded, seems a bit overblown. I don't think that most conservative thinkers would necessarily go that far. We don't belong to society in the sense that we are obligated to completely subjicate ourselves to the community. The way that sandefur phrases makes it sound that the individual must give up his identity, in a sense, to the greater community, and this is a gross exaggeration of the conservative viewpoint.

I turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Chruch to see what it says about the individual and his role in society. You may argue that this is not the conservative viewpoint, but considering how so many of the philosophic conservatives are Catholic or near-Catholic it does not seem unjust to interpret conservatism through the Church.
1879 The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.

1880 A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future. By means of society, each man is established as an "heir" and receives certain "talents" that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good.
Thus far we see much emphasis on man's duty to the community, and in a sense this seems to echo Sandefur's comments on conservatism's approach to the individual vis a vis society. But here is the crucial paragraph:
1881 Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person . . .is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions."
This, I believe, is critical. The human person is the end, thus society functions to promote human happiness. It's an organic structure whereby the human person finds fulfillment through the social network. Here's the next paragraph.
1882 Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him. To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged "on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs." This "socialization" also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capaacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights.
How Tocquevillian. Notice here how there seems to be a dual responsibility. People have social responsibilities, but these are not to be a burden. Our communal activities which promote the common good are intended, ultimately, for our own benefit. By interacting within the group, we are promoting our own happiness. Notice, also, that the latter expresses a belief held throughout the ages that man is a social and political animal.

The following sections stress the Church's doctrine of subsidiarity, which condemns excessive state intervention in the community. Humans have a responsibility to take care of others themselves. Thus socialistic or communistic governments are inherently immoral because they deprive individuals of the ability to care for their fellows on a personal level.

Furthermore, the Catechism states:
In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person.
Again, it is an organic cycle which allows the human person to promote the common good, which in turn aids the development of the human person.

If I have dwelt too long on Church teachings, it is only because I truly believe that here lies the basis of much conservative thought. You may disagree with such an assessment, and far be it from to claim that philisophic conservatism and Catholicism are necessarily one and the same, but most conservatives would ascribe to almost all that has just been quoted.

The conservative critique of individualism is not of individualism per se, but excessive individualism. In other words, we are concerned with a philosophy that fails to take into account others. Libertarian philosophy, especially as expressed through Thomas Jefferson, puts too much stock in man. "Leave man alone, let government not interfere, and all will be well," they might say. All well and good, and government does indeed have a limited role to play. But can man truly achieve happiness without social instruction, or social interaction? Can man behave selfishly and still promote the social good? And if not, how much self-interest can a society tolerate before it disintegrates?

Answers to these questions and more tomorrow.


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