How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us


Tyler Cowen:

I’ve already done What is Progressivism? so here is another installment.  This isn’t what conservatives today necessarily believe, it’s a retranslation of a mishmash of conservatism into a language which I can understand and, in part, present to others.  Here goes:

1. Evil is real and there exist evil nations in the world; the relatively virtuous Western powers require strong states to fend off such evils.  This distinct from “big government” in the sense advocated by modern liberals.

2. In international affairs, in the twentieth century, the United States in particular has been unselfish to a remarkable degree.  We therefore should trust the United States with unprecedented power.  In fact we have no alternative.  Some cultures really are better than others.

3. The spread of nuclear weapons, and other forms of WMD, to irrational, evil and undeterrable powers is the number one foreign policy issue.  It runs the risk of equalizing the balance of power between virtuous and evil agents in the world.

4. On the domestic front, education is the keystone issue.  Societies succeed if strong family structures support an emphasis on learning and acculturation.  While this does not rule out public sector education, if public sector education works the credit is not to be found in the public sector.

5. When in doubt, side with the laws and customs that have, over time, been associated with the Western powers and their growth into powerful and durable societies.  It’s hard to judge a lot of customs using pure, unadulterated reason, as Oakeshott and Hayek have suggested.  Defending traditional values is an enterprise which itself requires a mix of law and custom.  If you’re focused mainly on “policy proposals,” you are missing the point.

7. We do not have either the resources or the norms to remake society in the direction of a fully-comfortable-for-everyone social democracy.  We do need welfare states to keep a polity in running order, but we should be modest about what such regimes can accomplish.  They cannot overcome a fundamental lack of proper values as found in many poor or disadvantaged communities.

8. Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se.  A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay.  This is a lesson from history.  States must “save up their powder” for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals — often those with weak values — meet this standard.

9. For conservatism, small government is a means, not an end.  It is a means to the values which lie behind Western civilization and it is a means toward the prosperity we need to live well and defend ourselves.  Capitalism is important but capitalism itself relies upon particular values held by the citizenry.

10. Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.

Jason Soon:

Points 1 to 3 relate to foreign policy and international relations and on these matters I suppose I am closer to conservatives than on domestic issues. I was probably more of an internationalist and even more reflexively anti-war in my idealistic youth but have come to realise that nation states are going to be the most viable form of governance for a long time to come, that however imperfect and error-ridden our taxeaters are, they are our taxeaters, and some nation states really are better than others. The more anarchistic libertarians who don’t make these distinctions are little better than nihilists and useful idiots who may ultimately only endanger the survival of the values they claim to prize by having the nastier taxeaters of the world triumph.

And though people may be surprised to hear this given what I’ve written in the past, I generally agree with point 5 on tradition too. Point 7 about being appropriately modest about what can be accomplished by the welfare state would I think be equally accepted by libertarians, as would point 8. Some libertarians would probably differ on point 9 but as someone who came to the libertarian side from a general consequentialist rule-utilitarian perspective I’m not one of them.

Arnold Kling:

But Tyler asks for a generous interpretation of conservatism. Here are a few thoughts that are not captured by Tyler’s list. Again, these are what I think of as conservative beliefs, not what I believe.

1. Human culture is going down hill. Where a progressive is ashamed of our past and hopeful for the future, a conservative is proud of our past and worried about the future. Everywhere a conservative looks, he sees decay: sexual morals, education, political leadership, civic responsibility. Unless we can somehow revive our lost virtues, our past greatness will fade into a perilous future. [UPDATE: For the counter-argument that culture is on a downward trend, listen to the latest podcast featuring Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts.]

2. Christianity is the key to civilization and, dare one say it, the most progressive force in history. Ultimately, it is to Christianity that we owe the idea of the dignity of every human being. From this source comes recognition of the evils of slavery, tyranny, poverty, war, and violence. Humans are evil, but thanks to Christianity they are less evil.

3. Markets are preferable to government to the extent that markets are more consistent with family responsibility. Too much government leads to dependency and loss of virtue. However, cultural solidarity and virtue are more important than small government. Markets are amoral, and market processes can produce change that is too rapid for a culture to absorb. Markets promote individuality, at the expense of group cohesion. It is better to have government redistribution programs and regulations that hold society together than to allow markets to foster a total breakdown in social norms.

Devin Drumheller:

While I enjoyed both posts, I found one of Kling’s observations particularly interesting:

“The conservative thinks that wisdom resides in long-practiced cultural norms. The libertarian believes that wisdom resides in individual choices. And the progressive believes that wisdom resides with progressive elites.”

I think this simple explanation may resolve my difficulty with the contrasting attitudes toward wisdom described in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Sowell’s descriptions of the unconstrained and constrained visions correspond nicely with Kling’s descriptions of the progressive and conservative beliefs, respectively. When reading Sowell, however, I wasn’t satisfied with either of these descriptions. As a libertarian, I felt that my beliefs didn’t fit with either the constrained or unconstrained visions, as if I was stuck somewhere between the conflicting visions. I think Kling has now easily resolved that tension, and provided an accurate description of my belief in the wisdom of individual choices.


Tyler’s one point that Kling and I both agree deserves to make the list is his last:

“Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.”Or, rather, that responsibility and liberty are two sides of the same coin.

Go back to #2 on Kling’s list:

2. Christianity is the key to civilization and, dare one say it, the most progressive force in history. Ultimately, it is to Christianity that we owe the idea of the dignity of every human being. From this source comes recognition of the evils of slavery, tyranny, poverty, war, and violence. Humans are evil, but thanks to Christianity they are less evil.

Not related to the above lists, Rod Dreher reprinted an e-mail and responding to, on the role of religion in Western civilization.

The e-mail:

is the hysteria found in the writings of the Mark Steyn’s of the world about the coming collapse of Western Civilization in some measure a form of knee-jerk intellectual denial of a potential social outcome that is emotionally difficult to contemplate? Namely the possibility that Europe (or Western Civilization more broadly) may lose a distinctively overt Christian patina and that catastrophe will NOT ensue?

In other words, would such an outcome not be an implicit threat to any Christian worldview that presumes the sole authority to define the Good and the proper ordering of the relationships of mankind? Thus, would any principally secular societal arrangement not have to lead a priori to violent collapse when viewed from this perspective?

How much of these necessarily speculative judgments about the future trajectory of our society is simply baked into the cake if one adopts a Christian traditionalist viewpoint?


But the question has to be asked. As philosopher John Gray (himself an atheist/agnostic) likes to say, those atheists who blame religion for violence, religion and all sorts of nasty things have an obligation to examine the way atheists in power have behaved. What they’ll find is that there is something wrong with us as a species — and that the Enlightenment view of human nature is radically insufficient. That is not evidence for God’s existence, mind you, but it ought to compel us to rethink the optimism produced by the Enlightenment. And while no reasonable religious person would claim that a religiously-informed society would create paradise on earth, or ever had (in fact, one could easily argue from history that the more of a theocracy any given society is, the more hellish it becomes), I think we are terribly naive if we believe that we in the West can maintain our liberties and our civilization if we are cut off from its roots in the classical and Christian understanding of human nature. We have been free-riding on the Western tradition and its virtues for a very long time, and we cannot coast forever. It requires something like World War I and the Holocaust to show us the skull beneath the thin skin of civilization. I believe it can happen again, and that the further away we pull from our religious roots in Judaism, Christianity and the classical tradition, and the more we come to trust in technology, reason and our own inherent goodness, the closer we get to that kind of civilizational catastrophe.

Of course I hope and pray that I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t bet money on it, and I can’t help but despair over what I believe is the unwarranted, even dangerous, optimism of our time, and the effective disdain elites (and more than a few of the rest of us) have for the role of religion in our technological era — that is, to serve not as a source of knowledge, challenge and warning, but rather as a source of therapeutic comfort

Razib Khan at Secular Right:

I do not actually personally believe that Christianity stands guilty of the crimes of revolutionaries, because I suspect that particular radicalisms and utopianisms were a natural consequence of human social development so long as cultural complexity and economic growth ascended upward. After all, political and social revolution marched under the banner of Shia Islam, Taoism and Pure Land Buddhism in other civilizations. Religion is I think often less the ultimate driver as opposed to the proximate motive engine; the enabler, not the root of all evil. But Rod Dreher does not agree on this issue, and so I think it is important to bring up the idea that Christianity is not necessarily the anti-revolutionary and conservative cultural vehicle he presupposes it to be. At least no necessarily. For example, Matthew 10 has plenty which might satisfy the propogandistic needs of revolutionaries.

Of course, in many ways I agree with much of what Dreher suggests are and have been the failings of secular Left-liberalism. Needless to say I am not an eternal optimist about humanity and human nature, and I think the future is contingent, not inevitable. I also think that Left-liberals who wish to strip cultures of thick specific norms and values, and operate on the basis of thin general articles of utility, are on the wrong track and will only generate muddle and confusion. Dreher’s point that there is something important in the West retaining its identity as a Christian-derived civilization is something which I think is important. I would go beyond him and suggest that Spain as it is now is essentially a culture where Catholicism is the religion you are, or are not, and that in Sweden Lutheranism is the religion you are, and are not, and so forth. A Protestant or Muslim Spain, even one predominantly secular, would be at a fundamental rupture with its history, something different from what it is as we understand it (what would Spanish cuisine be without pork?). By the same token, a Christian China which condemned past Chinese religious traditions, from superstitious folk religion, indigenized Buddhism, to reverence of Confucius and subsequent sages, as deviltry would be a rupture which would transform China in some deep ineffable way.

To me the critical issue in a robust and vibrant culture which is one worth fighting for has less to do with acceptance of a particular metaphysic rooted in supernatural claims, and more with a shared canon from which one derives mores and allows for common cultural currency.* The liberal assumption of individualism, that we are utility maximizers who wish to optimize the lifetime hedonic values I think often results in a whole society be trapped in an aesthetically squalid rut. My conservatism is rooted in the acknowledge that the majority of the human race is fundamentally a high social and collective beast which flourishes due to their embeddedness in a comfortable and familiar matrix. Though I might disagree with Rod Dreher in details of interpretation, there are likely many points where such abstract issues such as whether Jesus Christ offers true salvation is besides the point operationally. If asked to choose between Aquinas or Al-Ghazali we are of agreement I suspect.

Opinionated Catholic

EARLIER: Progressives [pro-greh-sives] (noun): A Group That Seems A Lot Like Liberals

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan is back and one step ahead of us. On #8 on Cowen’s list:

There is one glimmer of hope in the current insanity on the right. And it is that with Bush’s spending and borrowing binge finally over, and the recession pushing the debt into the danger zone, some on the right are finally saying today what Bruce Bartlett and I were saying six years ago: that the first job of conservative government is to restore fiscal balance by cutting spending. This is enormously difficult right now because of the recession, but it is, in my view, the first priority of actual conservative governance in the future. Which is why when you hear Michael Steele prattling on about a Medicare bill of rights it’s so depressing. If the GOP party chairman is pledging to throw away any fiscal restraint and become a Democrat of the cynical scare-the-seniors variety, then the reformation has a ways to go.

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