Conservatism: Its Meaning and Prospects

Conservatism at bottom is resistance to the technocratic project, the modern attempt to turn the social world into a sort of universal machine for the maximum satisfaction of preferences.

That project has been growing up for a long time. It comes out of an understanding of knowledge and the world with its roots in the early modern period, an understanding that emphasizes measurement and mathematics and accepts as real only individual subjectivity and objects of the kind studied by modern physics. The project is also closely associated with modern forms of social organization: the modern state, with its extensive bureaucracy and unlimited claims, and modern capitalism, with its energy, innovation, and global reach, and its flexible organization that combines infinite complexity with clarity and simplicity of basic principle. Its alliance with those forms of organization gives it a position of tremendous power.

The effect of the project has been continuing radical reconfiguration of social life. That process has involved replacement by technology of tradition, religion, and natural law, which are now considered arbitrary impositions on a world composed of atoms, the void, and human sensation. Instead of piety and inherited ways, we rely on innovation, marketing, organizational science, and therapy.

As the process has extended itself, older understandings have been pushed to the margins and come to be considered irrational, oppressive, and presumptively violent. The result has been an ever-greater tendency to declare opposition to the extension of technocratic principles irrational and evil. That’s how the Supreme Court came to assert that the only real reason for wanting to keep the traditional and natural definition of marriage is a desire to injure people who prefer connections of other kinds. That is a reasonable interpretation if the social order is simply a construction for the purpose of helping people achieve whatever goals they happen to have.

Conservatism is recognition that there’s something wrong with the technocratic project. Reason is not simply a matter of adapting means to ends, and the world can’t be understood as a system composed solely of atoms, the void, and human sensation. The attempt to do so wipes out the possibility of meaning, and with it rationality and the possibility of a humane social order.

Human society can’t ultimately be based on individual satisfaction, since it can’t exist without willing acceptance of sacrifice. Nor can it flourish while denying natural forms and particular ties, like sexual complementarity and common history, culture, and loyalties, as a basis for durable functional relationships. And in any event, people aren’t satisfied by satisfaction of desire simply as such. Man lives by understandings as well as feelings, so he wants to know that his desires are justified, and his satisfactions genuinely good. He needs to see himself as a participant in the order of things rather than an amoeba ingesting nutrients.

The liberal form of technocracy has dealt with that basically religious need by turning rejection of higher goods into a higher good. Devotion withers if individual fulfillment is the highest goal, but if equal promotion of individual fulfillment is made the goal some degree of loyalty and sacrifice is possible. The solution works reasonably well for those who guide the system, whose position and activities it seems to justify. However, it does not allow the people at large to have an ideal goal in life, since the system achieves its ends by centralizing control. The result is that their lives go downhill in the way described by Charles Murray and Theodore Dalrymple.

Nor does the solution work for conservatives. Its illogic rankles, and it seems a poor substitute for older more coherent commitments such as patriotism and traditional religion. For that reason they view what liberals call social progress as a betrayal of everything they love.

They are usually people who feel strong concrete ties to family, faith, and community, so their opposition has usually emphasized symbols, practices, and institutions rather than theory. At their least theoretical they have simply proposed moderation. Others have had more particular demands. Free market conservatives have tried to limit the state. Populist conservatives have tried to limit the power of large rationalized institutions in general. Social conservatives have tried to maintain the strength and influence of traditional informal institutions like the family.

All have failed, in part because the trends have been so adverse, but in part because they have underestimated how comprehensive the problem is. Free market conservatives seem to be an exception to the rule of failure. The overall effect of their victories, however, has been a more refined socialism in which overall administrative supervision and control is retained, but extensive reliance is placed on exchange, profit, and crony capitalism as organizing mechanisms. The result, as illustrated by the ability of politically-connected real estate developers to use public authority to take other people’s property for their own use, is a regime in which private property may profit its owners but does not limit state power.

Other conservatives, with a somewhat better grasp of the depth of the problem, have paid more attention to basic principle. Religious conservatives have emphasized the continuing relevance of what is sacred, literary and philosophical conservatives that of intellectual and spiritual concerns that rise above technocracy.

They’ve lost too. One problem is that their approach still hasn’t gone deep enough. Religious conservatives are loyal to heritage. When their political and social heritage is fundamentally liberal that’s a problem. God, America, and freedom get all mixed up together, and the easy way to deal with difficulties is to gloss them over and focus on symbols and rhetoric. Literary and philosophical conservatives are politically and intellectually isolated, and tied by their professional position to an academic world that has become, in the form of American higher education, a half-trillion dollar industry providing training, expertise, and propaganda for technocracy. As such, it’s not a place where conservative thought can maintain itself.

Not only have conservatives lost all the battles but it seems they’ve lost the war. After the Supreme Court declaration that opponents of “gay marriage” are enemies of the human race, and Obamacare, with its all but universal mandate to provide contraceptives and abortifacients, and given the principle of inclusiveness combined with that of everlasting mass immigration from everywhere, there is very little room left in America for any recognition of the roots of social order in nature, transcendent principle, or particular history and culture.

Appearances are deceiving, however, since the triumph of technocratic liberalism means its destruction. It is based on a defective understanding of knowledge and the world that eventually destroys common sense and good judgment. It depends on popular acquiescence, and secures it by promises it will not be able to keep. Most basically, perhaps, it needs its ideals, since it depends on loyal and somewhat dedicated ruling elites, and the ideal of equal freedom that inspires them will grow steadily less believable as the years go by and the system becomes less free and more divided by class, with the top tier ever more dominant and the people at the bottom ever worse off. Nor is a coherent and public-spirited elite likely to survive in a diverse multicultural society in which there’s ever less social trust and more and more of the elite’s members view themselves as entitled recipients rather than disinterested providers of social protections and benefits.

The predictable result of such trends is a radically cosmopolitan and therefore deeply fragmented society that lacks a common faith and with it any basis for free cooperative public life. In such a society public reason and the technocratic project cannot continue, so the basis of rule is likely to become some combination of dynasticism, cronyism, deceit, bribery, and force. The outlook for liberalism is therefore no better than that for conservatism.

The question for us today, then, is how to promote developments that favor a better social world. Experience shows that it does no good to tinker with institutions or push for a bit more religion in public life when the basic presuppositions are so radically defective. Those who want better things must look for a fundamental transformation of outlook. They should be conservative not in the sense of maintaining existing trends and arrangements, but in the sense of valuing what those trends and arrangements reject: history, human nature, and the patterns and attachments, like family, religion, and particular culture, that are necessary for normal social functioning.

They also need to recognize that a normally functioning society must have particularistic as well as universal elements. A network of institutions and way of life can’t function without reference to a particular people whose institutions and way of life they are. The American people is complex, so if American society is to function normally it must function as a complex of societies corresponding to the regional, local, ethnic, and religious variations found in American life. It must be federal and local rather than national and all-inclusive.

So a better America would have to allow a variety of religious, historical, and cultural tendencies to maintain and develop themselves within a common political and civilizational order. That is a difficult task. Christendom once allowed something of the kind, but local variations of devotion, cult, and eventually confession did not amount to absolute differences of religion. Something like that limitation seems inevitable, though, since a political society with a complex system of fairly free cooperation needs a common understanding of ultimate matters to make productive discussion of basic issues possible. The distinction between Christ and Caesar once enabled such an understanding to coexist with sharp differences in customs and social institutions. Nothing else on offer seems likely to have that effect.

The best hope for the future therefore appears to lie with a renewed if no doubt incomplete Christendom. The alternative seems to be reaction to particular events that fails to deal with basic issues and so accepts current tendencies. Christendom may seem an unrealistic goal, but technocratic liberalism won’t last forever, nature abhors a vacuum, there is no rule for what comes next, partial or local success is better than none, and the outlook and way of life that best accommodates human needs and aspirations seems likely to have a comparative advantage in a time of increasingly radical disorder.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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  • Oremusman

    Kudos to James Kalb, who while I believe misreads the nature of the actors in our present situation, basically seems to arrive at the true, sound answer – though there’s no reason to settle for incomplete.

    The fact is ours is an innate liberal regime. This isn’t the iniquitous doing of Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, or whoever the presidential villain de jour is. The problem was baked into the regime from the outset, a radical experiment based largely on the thought of modern anti-Catholic intellectuals. Obama, and whatever may lie ahead for us, is simply the inexorable culmination of the 1700s zeitgeist.

    The various conservative factions described here are actual liberals. One doesn’t cease to be a liberal simply because one is more conservative than ones fellow liberals.

    A few years back, Thaddeus Kozinski and Brian McCall wrote convincingly that what we have in the United States is a pluralism that cannot measure up to Cicero’s standards for a commonwealth. Herein lies the problem, which James Kalb commendably touches upon in varying ways. Which is why Catholicism is the only answer. And why the ecclesial fecklessness of the past 50 years is a double to triple tragedy.

    • considering

      Catholicism as an institution has had its “sins” , so only Jesus Christ is the answer under whom ALL can unite and our increased response to Him will secure that the gates of hell shall not prevail over His church as He already said. Yes we need to go beyond modern thought that has become unbalanced to an extreme, but let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. What is True, Good and Beautiful in every Age (Era) lives on agelessly. We need to renew them in ourselves (whose souls are also ageless) to bring them forward in our current time.

      • considering

        but again, renew by increasing our response to Jesus Christ who leads His Church.

    • John O’Neill

      Amen; when will Catholics cease wrapping themselves up in the red white and blue and finding some nuggets of traditional Faith in the morass of the founding fathers most of whom despised Catholicism per se. America is an offshoot of the French Revolution and one should not have to point out what that event did for the Faith of our Fathers. Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Russian dissident and religious prophet took his crusade into the belly of the beast when he presented his thoughts in a speech in Harvard University in 1978. He basically said that the Americans and their materialistic anti spiritual empire was no different from the Soviet Union which he had denounced and was forced out of Russia as a result of this attack on the Politburo. The American bien pensants went ballistic; Jimmy Carter’s wife took advantage of her position of FLOTUS and publicly denounced Solzhenitsyn and the American conservatives could not believe that he would not praise the great American free market society to the high heavens. Extra ecclesiam nemo salvus erit.

  • Matthew C. Masotti

    How long before Catholic monarchism is rescued from the proverbial dustbin?

    • Adam__Baum

      There was a Catholic Monarchy. The Monarch was Henry Tudor. He went so far as to pen (perhaps with Thomas More as a silent partner, or a ghostwriter) a defense of the seven Sacraments against Lutheran reductionism. The Pope bestowed the title “Fidei Defensor” on him for his endorsement or authorship of orthodoxy against the incessant rantings of Luther.

      The result? Centuries of murder and suppression and erection of a counterfeit, that five centuries later is a leader in moral and theological debasement, a collection of effete snobs that are more at home on their posterior under a banker’s lamp than on their knees under candles, who are more likely to consider fashionable social novelties as indisputable truths than the Divinty of Christ. (John Shelby Spawn, er Spong)

      And in it’s home in Merry Old England, the church that was created in supine subordination to an earthly king in order to accomodate the doctrine that hereditation of that monarch (and or the satisfaction of his itinerant lust) is in freefall. Of course the Tudor dynasty is long gone and now that England is being transformed into Englandistan.

      There is a dense and unstable element, or perhaps even dark matter in the “more Catholic than the Pope” crowd. I will have no King, but Christ.

      • poetcomic1

        More Catholic than the Pope? I hope so. The Polish Catholic cleaning woman of my youth would NEVER have mocked a gift given to her by strangers in good faith ESPECIALLY running down that gift to other strangers, knowing that these hurtful words would surely get back to them. YES I am talking about the Pope carelessly and hurtfully mocking a spiritual bouquet of rosaries given to him and yes even I would not mock a gift given me in good faith and believe me I am no Pope. Pope or not, it is trashy behavior.

        • Adam__Baum


          • poetcomic1

            The excerpt that mentions Traditional Catholic groups is the one below
            (the ellipses are part of the original long transcript, as provided by
            CLAR): (Pope Francis quote:)

            I share with you two concerns. One is the
            Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are
            some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive
            them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before
            the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate
            this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns
            me; when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups,
            and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure:
            3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but
            this thing of counting… And these groups return to practices and to
            disciplines that I lived through – not you, because you are not old – to
            disciplines, to things that in that moment took place, but not now,
            they do not exist today…

      • Oremusman

        We are meant to have a Catholic state, and monarchial is a perfectly proper form of it, though not the only one. Smearing the Social Reign of Christ and our theocratic heritage for a mess of liberal Lockean Jeffersonian pottage is not what our faith calls for us to be and do.

        • Adam__Baum

          And where has this ever existed? You live in a dream world.

          You want a monarchy, board the next plane to Europe. Your view of monarchy is as mature as the people that romanticize Camelot.

          Our “Catholic” President was a corrupt and venal man, grasping and covetous.

          The search for dark matter has ended.

          • Oremusman

            We were meant to live the Catholic faith as a whole, which includes the Social Reign of Christ, not pay homage to liberal secularization and make the flag-raising at Iwo Jima effectively more important than Calvary.

            The American system will eventually have to be wholly dismantled, as it does not even qualify as Cicero’s commonwealth.

            That you would bring up JFK to undermine your own position just spotlights the absurdity of what you keep writing here. JFK was an Americanist first and foremost, and his mentality was far closer to yours than it would be to mine.

            • Adam__Baum

              JFK was an a politician first, and Henry was a monarch first. And whatever you would put in power will do the same. Open up your eyes, fool. This is everywhere, not just the US.
              There’s nothing so absurd as to believe that you’ll have any reign of Christ before he returns.

              • Oremusman

                Amazing that the sacred, timeless, authoritative teaching and witness of our popes,prelates, saints, and doctors through the ages is grist for your Americanist mill. One would at least have hoped that heterodoxy and dissent like this would not be paraded so brazenly.

                • Adam__Baum

                  I see no “sacred, timeless, authoritative teaching and witness of our popes,prelates, saints, and doctors through the ages” insisting on monarchy. Christ himself deferred on questions of governance.

                  You are the heterodox, you believe in the eradication of original sin and a heaven on earth that cannot exist until the Seciond coming.

                  • Oremusman

                    Calling a faithful traditional Catholic a heretic without a shred of evidence is pretty serious business, at least where I come from. Why do you believe such behavior is appropriate? I have had growing concerns about the American mindset, but cannot say that I would have expected this.

                    I’m willing to give this one more try. Do you think you can, and actually have a thoughtful, factual discussion?

                    The Church has been very clear that democracy is not a sacrament nor a requirement of any kind for state governance. It has been clear that states must recognize the true faith and implement the Social Reign of Christ. That has been attested to in Mirari Vos, Quanta Cura, Immortale Dei, Libertas, and Quas Primas. I affirm those teachings. Do you? If not, then you place yourself at odds with Holy Tradition.

                    Nowhere did I say the tradition insisted on monarchy as some kind of requirement. That was just a fictional fabrication from you, perhaps some kind of straw man tactic. The Church most certainly has held that monarch is a perfectly valid licit option. One has no right to say it is not a valid, licit option, even if it is not one’s preference.

                    You continually play with Church teaching on Original Sin, seemingly giving it some kind of Americanist spin as though the doctrine came from Thomas Paine. The Church has been very clear that Original Sin does not preclude the monarchal form of government, nor does it preclude the required, demanded Catholic confessional model state that all governments are required to have, whether monarchal or not.

                    The teachings of the ages back what I have said. Thomas Aquinas certainly has held to these truths. So have magisterial teachings, such as Leo X’s Exsurge Domine which lays out the licitness for the execution of heretics.

                    Any claims that any of this cannot exist until the Second Coming is heterdoxy as proclaimed by our popes in the above documents. Our faith and classical teachings comes from them, not John Locke nor Thomas Jefferson.

                    • John Roesch

                      According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the ideal form of government for Christians (Catholics) is polity, when properly understood is simply a Catholic Republic where the presider over the state, and people in an assembly are chosen by the people. The state rules for the common good on behalf of the people in accordance with the principles of natural and moral law. It is essentially government of the people, for the people, in accordance with Divine will.

            • Seek

              Wholly dismantling the American system, eh? I would think that the Americans — real ones, at any rate — might voice a few objections.

      • musicacre

        Henry Viii was a weak link and as we all know, that is all that is required to break a chain. However history is rich with holy and even saintly, Kings: King Edward (the confessor) of England, King Baldwin, (the leper king, of the Holy Land), King Louis IX, etc. These lives are worth looking into!

        • Adam__Baum

          The point is there is no panacea, as long as we are subject to other human beings, we are subject to sin and the error of finite beings.

    • Seek

      Hopefully, we have a long wait.

  • poetcomic1

    Chesterton nailed it. True conservatism arises out of love not a cranky distrust ‘of any thing new’. I have seen almost everything I love destroyed in my lifetime.

    • BM

      Yes, there is truth in this. I too have seen many things I love destroyed.

      While there are many false and unprincipled “conservativisms”, probably most of what is popularly portrayed as such, there is a more fundamental conservative principle that is true. I would argue that it is simply the 4th commandment: Honor thy father and mother.

      Most people wonder why the 4th commandment comes before other, seemingly greater commandments, such as Thou shalt not kill. It it because of unequal relations of justice. God directly comes first in the list because he is the total source of our being and the being of everything else. So we cannot in any sense stand in a relation of justice to God by our own power. But after God, our parents hold a similar position that others do not: they are the source of our being too and we are not the source (nor can we be even in principle) of theirs. Thus there is an imbalance of justice between parents and children. Children simply cannot render to their parents what their parents rendered to them: the source of existence. The remaining commandments, however, are concerned with matters of justice that can, at least in principle, be equalized.

      But, just as we stand in this relationship of dependence and imperfect justice to our parents, we similarly stand in such a relation to the sources of our social being: culture, language, traditions, religion, associations, land, etc.. They formed us and not us them. To the extent that they don’t cause us to sin, we owe them respect out of sheer justice.

      On this understanding, the progressive who tries to overturn these things is often a man of injustice, spitting upon his social parents in violation of the 4th commandment.

  • Mina

    “After the Supreme Court declaration that opponents of “gay marriage” are enemies of the human race…”

    Ridiculous hyperbole.

    • I found Scalia’s “hostes humani generis” comment entirely justified. The majority asserted without evidence that supporters of the traditional and natural definition of marriage are motivated simply by the desire to injure a group of people and showed by their conduct that they considered their arguments unworthy of response or even notice. That is the way you treat someone whom you’ve decided quite categorically to treat as an enemy.

      • Oremusman

        Then perhaps, James Kalb, we need to start treating Scalia like the enemy that his is as well. He has publicly proclaimed that he supports, upholds, and condones state governments having the legal option to legalize same-sex unions/marriages, as well as the butchery of the unborn.

        No less than Judie Brown has described him as one of the worst enemies of the unborn.

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  • Christopher


  • thomistica

    I would argue that Catholics should distance themselves from use of the term “conservative”. The conservative movement in America is rent with internal contradiction (cf. the old “fusionist” debate), and often the liberal/conservative distinction as used in the popular culture elides all sorts of analytically useful distinctions … and reflects mere tribal identities, not philosophically principled positions. Moreover, the first principles of many persons who describe themselves as conservatives hearken back to classical liberalism and the Enlightenment project, not the Thomistic or Aristotelian sensibilities that run throughout the Catholic tradition, even when not described as such explicitly.

    • Adam__Baum

      “The conservative movement in America is rent with internal contradiction”

      You don’t think that liberalism, that appropriated moniker for that curious fusion of rent-seekers, redistributionists, statists. socialists, authoritarians, neophilacs, xenophiliacs and oikophobes, social fascists, Keynesians and Marxists (the coalition of nincompoops) suffers that same defect or does their syncretism fueled mass choreography just hide those fractures?

      • Sage McLaughlin

        You must have missed the rest of the sentence, which begins with the phrase, “just as is liberalism.” Don’t just stop reading the instant you see something you don’t like.

        • Adam__Baum

          Yep, I missed it, my bad.

    • Jerome

      I agree with much of James Kalb’s diagnosis, but I think Thomistica has hit the nail on the head.

      Particularity is great, but it’s not the point of the faith per se. Church fathers like St. Ambrose went to great length in attacking the idea of tradition and sticking with the particular ways of one’s ancestors, when those traditions were pagan. The intellectual problem with conservatism of all kinds, in my opinion, is that it potentially makes an idol out of these things, even given that they are good and part of the right answer in and of themselves. G.K. Chesterton summed this up in his clever quip about “that atheist Edmund Burke.” (Please understand I not saying there aren’t lots of things of value in Burke, but in the end he is a modern ideologist, like it or not, and has the short comings of any modern ideology.)

      The Catholic Church, as Mr. Kalb was trying say (I think) is the true diversity, but I think, going beyond him, we need to leverage that in an internationalizing age, and promote our own international ‘counter-diversity’ in relation to the world. The technology and trade that are integrating the world and creating an internationalization are not likely to go away, at least not entirely–we need to get used to it, and use it to our own advantage in the measure we can.

      • I agree of course that the Church is universal and favors some universals. I’d add though that the doctrines of Incarnation and the resurrection of the body, as well as the emphasis on sacraments and sacramentals, show us that particularity as well as universality is part of the faith.

        Pagan polytheism overemphasized the particular, and I agree that Burke has a problem because his particular is so much more concrete and determinable than his universal. On the other hand, Islam, with its rejection of the Trinity and the Incarnation and its dissolution of all previous nations and cultures into one universal Ummah, overemphasizes oneness. And liberalism claims to achieve perfect individualism as well as perfect universalism but does so by evacuating individual and universal of all content and so destroys both.

        So there are a variety of ways to go wrong, and to be concerned about one is not necessarily to be indifferent to others. A lot depends on circumstances and the particular issue under discussion. In this particular piece I was concerned with liberalism and how to maintain substantive particulars and universals when the trends are adverse. If paganism or Little Englandism seemed a bigger problem I would have written something different.

        • Jerome

          Fair enough! My point was, though, we aren’t just needing to fight one opponent one way, but we need to be looking at multiple ways of doing this. Chesterton was aiming in part in his comment at the tendency of the modern west to materialistic concretism, and certain social applications of it on the conservative side. Part of a solution to the problem is an appropriate reemphasis on what’s good in particular traditions that relate to us, I agree. But to help overcome an often morally dubious internationalism in an age that “structurally” tends to produce it, you also need a counter internationalism, such as recent popes have tried to build with World Youth Day, etc. This brings out a different aspect of the incarnation, the universal kingship of Christ. It’s a matter of balancing emphases, of course.

  • BM

    As an aside, I wonder if Mr. Kalb is familiar with the Chronicles Magazine. Their brand of (often) supercilious and cynical conservativism attacks other versions of conservativism as much as liberalism. (At least Dr. Fleming does.) It is good to be aware of and take account of their critiques.

  • Nick_Palmer3

    Semantics can get in the way, and Mr. Kalb does an admirable job of outing many of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too conservatism-light factions. They all share core flaws, and were I more clever with more free time, I might try to construct a model better to expose their transgressions from “true” conservatism. I always default to Russell Kirk’s ten conservative principles (1993 from

    First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
    Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
    Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
    Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
    Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
    Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
    Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
    Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
    Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
    Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

    One of the frequent breakdowns of conservative thinking is an almost Gnostic belief in myself/”my class” having the ability to immanentize the eschaton. “Yeah, yeah, the principles hold, but I’m smart enough to manipulate the levers behind the scene.” This view is clear in the modern progressive Democrat like President Obama, but also in Mitt Romney. Both men believe in the power of really smart people (consultants, Ivy League professors) to override basic human, societal, and economic mechanisms.

    Our Lord admonished us to be like little children. The Faith, and a good life should be within the reach of the simplest, most humble person. Yet much of our elite — left and right — seek to create or even become the overlords. It smacks of Scientology in a less wacky wrapper.

    As I see it, the Catholic Church does not posit an answer. I’m in the middle of Rev. Maciej Zieba’s “Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from “Rerum Novarum” to “Caritas in Veritate.” In my simple reading, Rev. Zieba highlights that Pope John Paul II”s “Centesimus Annus” denies the existence of some magical Catholic “Third Way” politics. My take is that the Church can evaluate actual systems, and that the appropriate (best possible?) political order is a) a function of the time and circumstances, and b) always less than perfect this side of the afterlife.

    • Adam__Baum

      “Both men believe in the power of really smart people (consultants, Ivy
      League professors) to override basic human, societal, and economic

      And that is a huge problem. It is Roepke’s Cult of the Colossal and the great arrogance of the academy.

      There is a problem with ignorance of economics, and part of that is due to the profession, which uses impressive mathematics to construct what the late Ronald Coase bemoaned as “blackboard economics”. In his 1991 Nobel acceptance speech, he stated the following: “What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth. I have called the
      result “blackboard economics”.” It gives the appearance of determinism, certitude and incontrovertability where it does not exist.

      The Greeks, who had a passion for distinction,classified the difference between episteme (knowing what) and techne (knowing how). There’s a reason why your plumber isn’t a mechanical engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, or why your electrician isn’t an electrical engineer or a physicist. Yes, they need to know certain fundamentals, lest pipes burst or houses become fire traps, but their value comes from different types of knowledge-a Rolodex full of vendors, knowledge of pipes and wires, the names of parts and components, and the ability to apply heuristics where there are uncertainties.

      The chattering and ruling classes still think the classroom provides them with some “Secret Knowledge” to quote the title of a recent book, but the value derives from the ability to solve problems that don’t “scale” well. It’s not committees of so-called “experts”, but individuals using prices as information that produce what we need, when we need it, where we need it.

      This principle that economic activity is individuals using their God-given talents, working together, but without some Master overlord, is best illustrated by the 1958 I Pencil by Leonard Reed, who used the simple little pencil to illustrate that while many people working together produced that common little instrument, no ONE PERSON could possibly know how to procure the components in proper quantities, manage the manufacturing of the finished item and distribute it to all the places (school shelves, stationers, drug stores,etc) that it was sent to, in copius quantities and at a price that allowed it to be ubiquitous.

      • Nick_Palmer3

        Amen, Adam. Beyond the Christian “dignity of the individual” and “primacy of the family as the basic building block of society,” there are darned good practical reasons for the principle of subsidiarity. It’s amazing how the modern mind is capable of wholly discounting the failure of the Soviet Union and the unmitigated disaster of North Korea. “They just weren’t as [smart/good/altruistic/technically advanced/??] as we are.” It’s remarkable that those who criticize religious believers as anti-science willfully ignore facts.

        Once we move beyond the fallacy of rule by the smartandgood, we run smack into the conflation of “government” and “society.” Our president often sounds this theme, and I recently heard our Massachusetts Governor intone, “…government is us, the people of the Commonwealth.”

        No, it’s not. Government is an institution for meeting certain circumscribed needs. It’s a servant, not a master or overlord. Or, it should be.

        Now, actually many years ago, we’ve reached the point where removing the metastasized mass that is government — especially Federal and State — would cause massive harm to millions of individuals.

        Yet, I’m called to hope. Despair is a sin. I did read just today that despite the sequester and “shut-down,” the US economy added over 200,000 private-sector jobs last month, while the government workforce shrank by about 8,000. Modest growth, but growth. Modest shrinkage, but a start.

    • poetcomic1

      The ‘wealth’ of a nation is its ‘attention’, what we ‘attend’ to. As Catholics, if we give our attention to the arguments, the endless voices of persuasion, the constantly changing topics, the cacophony of this media saturated pseudo-discourse ‘we will surely die’. Babel, cacophony, noise: anyone who has had a brush with the Satanic recognizes the ‘buzz’ (as advertising so aptly calls it).

  • This article doesn’t even get close to the cause of the symptoms that the author profusely address. Yet, in the end, all that he can muster is an analgesic. Rather, the cause of these symptoms lies at the misunderstanding on the human person, a cause that taints both so-called liberals and conservatives. What is need is deepening on Metaphysics in order to understand man and the world, to understand the order of everything. The short answer is to return to St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.

    • Adam__Baum

      The problem with “returning” to anyone is that no matter how lucid, they are finite.
      While this isn’t addressed to you, I find it odd that those who dismiss political architects on the basis of their deism don’t seem to have a problem with Aristotle.

    • It also doesn’t go into the Fall of Man, the Trinity, the Incarnation, problems in late medieval philosophy, the fallout from Vatican II, and many other important topics. You can only do so much in a short piece. It does say though that “the basic presuppositions [of today’s public life] are … radically defective. Those who want better things must look for a fundamental transformation of outlook.
      They should [value] history, human nature, and the patterns and
      attachments, like family, religion, and particular culture, that are
      necessary for normal social functioning.” The “patterns necessary for normal social functioning” were intended to include classical natural law.

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  • Nasicacato

    I agree with Mr. Kalb, the western world is almost certainly in a state of free fall now. It cannot last and will have to come to land on something. I pray it is a return to Christendom. I worry that it may be a subjection to Islam.

    • musicacre

      We need to get more Christians on their knees, praying, than the Islamists, and maybe the world will “land” back on Christendom.

  • MarkRutledge

    I often have the opportunity to speak with Republican candidates seeking local office, and I always ask them one simple question: “You call yourself conservative; what is it you wish to conserve?” This is a question every conservative should be able to answer reflexively. I say it is our religion, the family, and our freedom. Too many define their conservatism by stating policy positions. It isn’t that they aren’t conservative, but that they aren’t in touch with the core of their philosophy. Without that understanding how can conservatism be effectively defended in the public square?

    • Adam__Baum

      As politicians, they desire to conserve their power and status.

  • thomistica

    We entered a new world in 1973, and the ENDA vote signaled just one more marker of how much has changed and will change.

    Look at the ENDA vote. The Republican Party, bastion of “conservatism”, is now complicit in undermining religious liberty. (Rough sledding ahead, folks.)

    One more reason, in addition to the others I identified, for Catholics to run from the label “conservative”.

    After all, do we really want to “conserve” the ever more corrupt status quo?

  • Elcoguy

    You can’t sugarcoat it with academic niceties. The basic tenant of conservatism is a fear of change and its adherents seek to “conserve” the culture as they know (or knew) it. But this is a terrible way to go through life because the culture has been changing since the dawn of man. If it hadn’t we’d all still be living in caves.

    So what happens is the conservative goes through life angry, bitter and hostile to those who embrace change and see it as a natural part of being human and who see cultural change as always being for the better (better standards of living, healthcare, better access to education for all, modernism, equal rights, environmental and peace studies)

    Those of us who believe the world is getting better not worse pity the embittered conservatives in our midst, especially now in modern times where the pace of change has greatly speeded up with the advent of mass communications. Anyone who has lived through the last half century can attest to that.

    These cultural changes are part of mankind’s life on this planet, and they will never stop. Acceptance of these ongoing changes is really the only rational way to a happy life. You simply can’t stop time……and time means change.

    • It seems then that going with the flow is the wisest approach to life. Makes sense from some perspectives. Some questions though:

      1. Some things change, some remain the same. Both those features of the world annoy some people. So if conservatism is fear of change, is progressivism dislike of what exists?

      2. Are people who want to save the whales, icecaps, or rainforests bitter clingers?

      3. The article in fact rejects conservatism as a failed approach in favor of a vision of what its author believes would be a better social world. Does that make its author a progressivist hater of reality rather than a conservative bitter clinger?

    • thebigdog

      So, when changes coming soon include polygamy, incest, bestiality and the disgraceful perverts at NAMBLA — you will be on board with your full support because only conservatives “fear change”

      • Seek

        Those perverts at NAMBLA have got nothing on the Catholic Church.

    • Adam__Baum

      What’s getting better? Sure, we’ll have cheap Flat Screen TV’s or will you also extol the virtues of millions of fatherless children, flashmobs, Islamism, Statism, the loss of privacy? Do you really think people have “better” education? What the hell are “peace studies” – is that when a man launches war on his political opposition?
      Are you really the last one to figure out “hope and change” was a slogan that was as much of a lie as “if you like your plan..” I guess you still think that’s a roaring success.
      There’s always been people that embrace change for it’s own sake, and there are people that refer to them as “useful idiots”.

    • Valerie Hurst

      Don’t pity us, we certainly do NOT live in fear, and I never meet conservatives who are as bitter and angry as you are. If you think that all change is good, you are a typical liberal. You seem to have some severe mental issues, given the hostility in your comments. Accusing conservatives of being bad people is not going to solve your own personal problems.

    • mikeg

      The word is “tenet,” not “tenant.” Tenants rent property; tenets are beliefs. You must’ve gone to a public school.

      Another dumb liberal who has delusions of adequacy.

    • Theorist

      lol what?

  • Selvar

    I think trans-human technologies (e.g. genetic engineering) are the big wild card here. If the liberal technocracy can keep itself afloat until technologies which can control human biology at a basic level are developed, a traditionalist renaissance based on “natural law” would than be impossible, since human nature itself will have been transformed into something unrecognizable.

    • Well yes, if technological interventions in enormously complex and endlessly adaptive evolved functional systems can change they way they act as desired without degrading general functionality then traditionalism and natural law make no sense. You don’t need to bring in genetic technology to know that though. Why not just develop a social technology? It seems it would be simpler, since that’s what’s wanted anyway and a society seems quite a bit simpler and more malleable as a structure than a human being.

      • Guest

        Well, let me give an example: the USSR failed because the ideology
        of state socialism/communism is vastly out of line with human nature and how
        most people are naturally predisposed to behave. But, what if the CCCP could have genetically engineered
        and cloned the new socialist man?
        Radical attempts to rework society normally fail because, while the ideologues
        in charge can manipulate environmental factors, they cannot manipulate genetically
        caused behavioral tendencies which have evolved over millions of years . However,
        once both environmental and genetic factors can be manipulated, there is really
        nothing to stop dreamers of various stripes from creating their brave new

        • Sure. If you can remake incomprehensibly subtle and complicated things then less subtle and complicated structures you put together using them as raw material become easier to handle too. The belief we’ll be able to create New Soviet Man by genetic engineering looks a bit odd though.

          Take an analogy. The literary character Hamlet is incomparably simpler than an actual human being named Hamlet would be. And literary technologists have recently acquired advanced recombinant ABC technology (a.k.a. Microsoft Word) that enables them to resequence the literary character’s ABCs any way they want, so that Hamlet can be turned into a black lesbian radical feminist if that will get them tenure. The point is that they can do that but the resulting H. isn’t going to function very well as a character.

          I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t run into similar but incomparably worse problems trying to resequence human DNA to create New Soviet Man. You might eventually get a sort of alpha version prototype up and running but how functional would the resulting society be?

    • Adam__Baum

      Welcome to Huxley’s “Brave New World”

    • Theorist

      That’s what I’ve always feared, and why we should be interested in things like metaphysics natural philosophy, and science. If we can make men into women and if men can give birth, then what happens to the philosophy of sex espoused by Catholicism? What happens when we can make humans who reproduce by themselves, like some plants or certain insects? Perhaps none of this affects our religion but maybe it does and it certainly seems that if such technologies come to be, that anyone could argue that for instance homosexuals can marry because they can make babies and etc.

  • Robert C Whitten

    Free market economics DOES NOT include “crony capitalism!” It is entirely compatible with traditional conservatism, as emphasized in publications of the (Catholic) Acton Institute.

    • The article said that what we’ve ended up with involves a lot of crony capitalism. That’s not a statement about what free market types or the Acton Institute wanted.

  • hombre111

    Quite a good article, although he sees huge danger in the overwhelming state and does not have a lot to say about destructive capitalism and the intrusion of a market attitude into almost every aspect of life. That’s the kind of criticism the corporations love. At least we vote for government.

    • In the second paragraph I attribute the power of technocracy to capitalism as well as the modern state. Otherwise I don’t say much about institutional matters except to note that attempts by free marketers to restrain power haven’t helped that much.

      • hombre111

        Thanks, Dr. Kalb. I still think that you need to ponder the effect corporations have had on our world. For instance, the role of Walmart and the major role it played in globalization and the falling wages of the American middle class, with the resulting despair, especially among white men who feel betrayed, somehow blaming it all on government.

        Above all Wall Street and the banks playing financial games among themselves, as, for example, with derivatives. At one time, the value of their bets was several times the value of everything on earth, and it was all bound to collapse. Thanks to the greed of only a few thousand strategically place men in the financial “industry,” in two weeks, the world lost 1/3 to 1/2 of its net worth. My small community saw a 30% loss in its net value. My home lost 1/3 of its value. It has recovered to some extent, but in the meantime…. Millions have lost their savings, their jobs, and their futures. The only parallel catastrophe would have been a nuclear war. The economy still has not recovered. Placing all the emphasis on big government disguises the ravages of uncontrolled private enterprise.

    • Art Deco

      although he sees huge danger in the overwhelming state and does not have
      a lot to say about destructive capitalism and the intrusion of a market
      attitude into almost every aspect of life.

      Which aspects?

      Political life is awash with rent-seeking and cross-subsidies to favored clientele. That’s not a market attitude.

      As for the philanthropic sector, the notion that the provision of medical care and higher education respect the logic of unfettered markets is not serious; both are responding to perverse incentives intermediated by public policy.

      As for matters religious, evangelicalism often has a disagreeable ‘entrepreneurial’ aspect to it (recall, for example, the prayer of Jabez trade a few years back). The thing is, evangelical associations have no influence on the culture outside their own nexus and are used (quite unfairly) as punching bags and punch lines by everyone else. They cannot count on the loyalty of the intelligentsia supported by their tuition dollars and donations, either (a phenomenon with which orthodox Catholics are familiar).

      You might criticize how crass are mundane human relations in our time. To do that honestly, you would have to take a hard critical look at girl culture (among other things). Ironically, the people most willing to do that are libertarians like Helen Smith and Glenn Reynolds.

      • hombre111

        America is basically a nation of merchants and a nation of individualists. A thing has no understandable worth unless we can put a dollar amount on it, and we cannot grasp the importance of community or the common good. This is left brain thinking, with no ability to understand the whole.