America the Beautiful, or credit where it is due

December 9, 2015 § 28 Comments

We’ve seen that the principles upon which all liberals agree – that the primary purpose and justification of politics is to secure freedom and (concomitantly) equal rights – are incoherent; so, by the principle of explosion, they logically imply everything and its opposite all at once, although in practice this is constrained by the reality in which we are situated: by unprincipled exceptions and common sense.

What happens here is rather subtle, and many people have a hard time understanding it.  When our explicit principles – the authoritative principles under which we justify our exercise of discriminating authority in the controvertible cases of politics – are self contradictory, they can as a logical matter be invoked to justify anything at all, or its opposite.  However, this logical production of any and all results and their opposite is further constrained by the desires and expectations that people actually happen to have.  It is for this reason that liberalism as a political doctrine always tends toward making whatever people happen to want at a given point in time authoritative: liberalism destroys the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as the justifying foundation of politics and replaces them with Will.

This ‘works’ in a sense as long as everyone more or less wants and expects the same thing: that is, it creates the illusion of being a workable political doctrine as long as politics is mostly unnecessary.  When politics does become necessary, liberalism attempts to abolish it: to rule while pretending not to rule. When faced with existential threat – some principled exception which brings liberalism itself into question in principle, stemming from the Low Man’s intransigence or incapacities – it becomes effervescently violent.

Americans, as I have mentioned, often mistakenly identify America with liberalism, the political doctrine.  Abraham Lincoln expresses this view eloquently, describing America as “… a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

But America is not a political doctrine or proposition, or a collection of texts.  America is a country: a national community consisting of many subsidiary communities and peoples with at least some shared history, law, and tradition.

So to the extent America instantiates things which are Good, True, and Beautiful, this cannot be attributed to liberalism.  Attributing these things to liberalism is like attributing them to the proposition that 2+2=5.

To the extent that there are good political results in America, then, those things must be – because liberalism reduces politics to Will – attributable to a good Will on the part of some actual American people in some actual concrete situations.  These good political results must be attributable to the extent to which actual American people have willed what is good, true, and beautiful; because liberalism itself is intrinsically indifferent as to what is good, true, and beautiful: it reduces them politically to the human will.

To restate it, without getting into controversy over the extent to which this is concretely the case:

Any good that has come from or does come from American politics is not a result of liberalism.  It is a result of good will on the part of some actual Americans in particular concrete situations.

UPDATE: See Ed’s criticism in the comments.

§ 28 Responses to America the Beautiful, or credit where it is due

  • dpmonahan says:

    So the only good thing about America is the humanity of Americans and not the principles of American culture themselves?
    Have you read Russel Kirk’s “The Roots of American Order”? It is basically a Western Civ course from the point of view of the American Revolution. He sees the revolution as being not only a result of he Enlightenment but also as an attempt to preserve English traditions. It might help you avoid the over-broad generalization.

  • CuiPertinebit says:

    He’s not making a broad over-generalization; he’s making a very specific point about a very specific thing. He is saying that the essence of liberalism is incoherent and is not itself the cause of anything good and coherent; rather, some people have been able to apply their good will at certain times and places, using the mechanisms of liberalism. But this was done in spite of, or at least regardless of, the principles of liberalism, which can just as easily be invoked for malicious ends without doing violence to the principles of liberalism.

    One can abuse and falsely invoke any ideal contrary to its purpose. But because liberalism is incoherent, it is invoked legitimately for disparate ends. If good happens to result in some cases, it is not because liberalism is a just and coherent system that produces goodness by its nature, but because some people used mechanisms tolerated by democracy and liberalism (for a time) in order to effect their goodwill.

  • Zippy says:

    dpmonahan:

    So the only good thing about America is the humanity of Americans and not the principles of American culture themselves?

    If by “principles of American culture” you mean liberalism specifically, then what you are talking about is a falsehood, a lie, a deception.

    But your use of the word ‘culture’ might imply that you mean something (or somethings) in addition to liberalism itself, despite the care I have taken to be clear in identifying it specifically.

  • Ed says:

    Zippy, but aren’t you committing the genetic fallacy after you successfully defended your argument against it in a previous post?

    Sometimes the good, true and beautiful have ugly origins (a human being may be conceived in fornication…it still is the image of God)…

    I understand and agree that what is good, true and beautiful is of such nature despite Liberalism and some of the good, true and beautiful in America cannot even be attributable to the good will of some Americans.
    (although of course some, perhaps most, must be the result of the good will of Americans).

  • Zippy says:

    Ed:

    You do raise a good point — touche. So this paragraph in the OP is pretty much just wrong as written:

    So to the extent America instantiates things which are Good, True, and Beautiful, this cannot be attributed to liberalism. Attributing these things to liberalism is like attributing them to the proposition that 2+2=5.

    Basically, because God makes good come from evil choices we cannot conclude that things which result from evil choices are not themselves good.

    So your criticism is right and the OP is wrong.

    But I would defend the narrower view I expressed, though still inadequately, in the third to last paragraph of the OP …

    To the extent that there are good political results in America …

    … by rephrasing it as …

    To the extent that [good political choices are or have been made] in America …

    A correct mathematical result derived from contradictory axioms is only accidentally or extrinsically correct. The contradictory axioms are not the cause of the correctness of the result.

    In this sense, liberalism is never the cause of the goodness of some good political decision or other. It is either rationalization of a bad decision or superfluous faux-justification layered over the top of an already good decision.

  • dpmonahan says:

    The principles of American culture, the matrix from which it derives, are in part enlightenment liberalism, in part English Common Law, the circumstances of early settlement, English Protestantism, and the rest of Western heritage back to Athens and Jerusalem.
    For a while this synthesis had hung together, nowadays it is pulling apart. I don’t think it is possible to filter out the “liberal” from the “human”. What is “human” and “common sense” is always a culturally formed.

  • Zippy says:

    dpmonahan:

    I don’t think it is possible to filter out the “liberal” from the “human”.

    Noted, but I’ve been quite specific about what I mean by liberalism qua political doctrine and what is wrong with it; and to me this looks like misdirection, as if I had criticized something else, for example the context in which the political doctrine of liberalism developed and has operated historically.

    So, what about my characterization of liberalism qua political doctrine – my identification of it specifically and criticism of it once identified – do you think is untrue?

  • Bruce says:

    Looking at your first paragraph, I remember Jim Kalb’s definition of liberalism being something like (from memory here) “individual liberty subject to the formal constraint of equality.” So he seems to see equality as the constraining thing in liberal philosophy. Just wondering if your definition of liberalism jives with his.

  • Zippy says:

    Bruce,

    I haven’t talked to Jim in quite a long while now. It may have never occurred to him that liberty (as a political priority) actually implies equality — although he has said similar sounding things over the years.

  • dpmonahan says:

    We are probably talking about different things. Never mind.

  • Mike T says:

    In this sense, liberalism is never the cause of the goodness of some good political decision or other. It is either rationalization of a bad decision or superfluous faux-justification layered over the top of an already good decision.

    So you would say that the liberal freedom-equality value system (don’t know what else to cause it) could not be given credit for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, but rather it was only the will of those who embraced liberalism that made it happen?

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    Right: abolition was not produced by liberalism per se, which simply makes Will the political standard. Abolition was produced by actual people of good will.

  • Mike T says:

    What happens here is rather subtle, and many people have a hard time understanding it. When our explicit principles – the authoritative principles under which we justify our exercise of discriminating authority in the controvertible cases of politics – are self contradictory, they can as a logical matter be invoked to justify anything at all, or its opposite. However, this logical production of any and all results and their opposite is further constrained by the desires and expectations that people actually happen to have. It is for this reason that liberalism as a political doctrine always tends toward making whatever people happen to want at a given point in time authoritative: liberalism destroys the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as the justifying foundation of politics and replaces them with Will.

    In practice, this also means that liberalism cannot accomplish one of its core claims to superiority which is standing firmly against evil men in positions of authority. Since liberalism has no coherent and viable mechanism to reconcile freedom and equality with authority, and reduces everything to Will, there is no longer an objective standard of what is a good follower and a good authority within a community that embraces liberalism. Even where an objective standard might be difficult to agree upon, there is longer a reasonable spectrum of agreement.

    Under liberalism, who is to say that only one of these has a reasonable case for going into open, armed rebellion?

    1. A man under the direct rule of Jesus Christ.
    2. A man under the rule of a good philosopher king.
    3. A man under the rule of a banal, moderately corrupt politician (ex. Chicago/NYC/DC politics).
    4. A man under a leader like Joseph Stalin who routinely kills people out of pure paranoia.

    Liberalism cannot formulate a coherent case for what abuse and evil are as real matters of judgment and condemnation. That’s why in practice, as you like to mention about the feminist trolls at Dalrock’s site, they often attack ordinary, banal, beta males not actual, objectively evil men. And even then, objectively evil authorities must be doing evil things as an exercise of authority before the question of rebellion is even a legitimate topic. Private evil, such as a king’s adultery does not justify resisting him as a political authority, though it would justify his children and wife in seeking redress via ecclesiastic authorities.

    It’s interesting how when you pick this apart in your head, the truth is actually so much simpler than the swirly sh#$storm of justifications we are taught to believe and then justify. It’s like gaining literacy in English, which is such a terrible written language because of all of its exceptions. Phonetically-sound languages like Italian (which is the linguistic equivalent of the non-liberal system) go down so much more naturally.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    Right, as I’ve posted before, only discriminating authoritarians can resist tyranny.

  • Bruce says:

    “I haven’t talked to Jim in quite a long while now.”
    Yeah, he’s all big time now – writes for magazines.
    That original multi-contributor VFR was really great (I was a lurker).

  • Mike T says:

    I think it would be interesting to examine the history of political authority and see how often in pre-modern times political authorities concerned themselves with details to such an extent that they micromanaged the way liberal authorities often do. My guess is that the average feudal or ancient authority did not give a damn about how you ran your house, contracted your labor and a host of other things except where there was a breach of the peace. In practice, there was a real form of liberty because the authority simply never saw it wise or good to meddle in the affairs of people who weren’t obviously harming the public good.

    I don’t know if it’s merely coexistent as a coincidence or intrinsic to liberalism, but there is also a need to perfect the world and drive “progress” forward that is tied at the hip with liberalism. You can’t accomplish that organically, but it requires that you gain authority specifically so that you can conform those under you to a narrower, personal view of what is good.

    Consider some of the stuff that Bloomberg did as mayor. The average feudal lord would have been unable to believe that a man of that position would give two sun-dried dog turds what his subjects were eating and drinking so long as it wasn’t poisonous.

  • Zippy says:

    Making freedom the standard destroys subsidiarity and produces tyranny.

  • Mike T says:

    One of the things I find ironic about our own political system is how few conservatives would agree with our founding fathers on the nature of the US Constitution. Our founders saw it not as a document describing rights against “government,” but as contractually enforced subsidiarity between the federal and state authorities. They didn’t want the federal government establishing a religion, but actually in many cases supported state religion at lower levels of authority, among many examples.

  • Zippy says:

    It is the nature of liberalism to produce conflict between the generations. This turns conservatism into something ironic, because conservatism just is a tendency to respect and value the wisdom of our ancestors. This becomes ironic in sufficiently advanced liberal societies because those ancestors are liberals.

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