Friday, February 29, 2008

Conservative political thought

Tyler Cowen asks, "Which 20th century classic of American conservative political thought has held up best?" He makes the insightful point that "none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be." NB the qualifiers in the original post: American, not European; conservative, not libertarian; political thought, not economics.

It's a real problem-- one I've often talked with people about in a teaching context, because there's no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what's interesting about Burkean or social conservatism. Oakeshott's the best 20th c. conservative, but he fails Tyler's "American" test-- and he's at his most teachably conservative in essays, not books. A major underlying theme of the Nomos conference last year on "American conservative thought and politics" was "why the disconnect between political philosophy and conservatism, especially American conservatism?"

The problem isn't just, as conservatives would have it, that the conservative temperament isn't easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works-- that part of its point is not to be so reducible. One of the problems is that history keeps right on going-- and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling "stop!" tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he's already living in hell-in-a-handbasket. This is a particular problem because of race in America-- no mid-20th c work is going to endure as a real, read-not-just-namechecked, classic of political thought that talks about how everything will go to hell if the South isn't allowed to remain the South. Someone like Strauss who didn't care about the American south and didn't write much about the news of his day in any event thus holds up relatively better than someone like Kirk. This is a special case of Tyler's depravity point-- but in the context of 20th c American conservatism, an important special case. And note that Oakeshott has his own version of these problems; doesn't "Rationalism in Politics" end up feeling faintly ridiculous by the time he's talking about women's suffrage?

Count me on both sides of the Road to Serfdom squabble that appears in Tyler's comment thread. Its core historical-necessity thesis has been undermined-- but the relevant country isn't Sweden. Scandinavia and the Low Countries are welfare states but not planned economies. The relevant countries are the Rhine Model countries of France and Germany, plus postwar Japan and South Korea.

I don't see any great answers in the comment thread yet. I guess I might say Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, and Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, but the former isn't really distinctively conservative enough and I'm not sure the latter is a classic.

Update: Brad deLong says "cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!" Lizardbreath at Unfogged calls this the "natural conclusion."

To this I say: feh. Scoring points is fun and all, but the point being scored here is entirely beside the, well, point. Brad has no difficulty finding classic teaching texts for views he considers unattarctive-- say, Marxism.

Take something like the standard syllabus of a post-1971 Justice course. theory of Justice; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Liberalism and the Limits of Justice; Spheres of Justice; After Virtue; Justice, Gender, and the Family; Justice and the Politics of Difference; Liberalism, Community, and Culture; Political Liberalism. Does anyone find the political visions of all of those books attractive? Me, neither. I'm not sure how one could do so. But they're all teachable versions of major, intellectually serious arguments.

John Finnis' Natural Law and Natural Rights and Robert George's Making Men Moral are major, intellectually serious statements of a social conservatism I find deeply unattractive. But for current purposes my problem is not that they're unattractive, it's that they're unteachable-- pitched at too high a level, too drenched in literatures undergraduates in political theory courses won't have read, too Raz-ishly dense (and Raz is hardly teachable to undergraduatess in the first place).

Schmitt's Concept of the Political and Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy provide teachable, cogent, serious statements for a position I trust Brad finds "unattractive." So does Maistre. Why is it easier to find enduring reactionary texts than enduring texts that state the basic position of conservatives in liberal democracies? That's the puzzle.

Another update: Last word to Brad. I'm supposed to do some more-sustained thinking and writing on this question sometime soon. I'll report back with new contributions then.

One more update: My colleague Will Roberts may have it just right.
I think Jacob has answered his own question, actually. Fundamentally, conservatives (in the relevant Burke-to-Buckley-to-Sullivan sense) are liberals (in the classical sense) who worry about cultural decay. That is, they agree with liberals that subjective freedom is the end of the political community, but think that market freedom needs a basis in certain cultural institutions in order to be stable and lasting. Those institutions are always being whittled away by the drip-drip-drip of market freedoms, so conservatives self-avowedly find themselves repeatedly "standing athwart history yelling Stop!" The trouble is, as Jacob says, "history keeps right on going." The drip-drip-drip keeps eroding the cultural institutions, and conservatives have to take some new stand.

To be a teachable classic, a work has to touch something enduring, and conservative texts tend to be caught up in the present crisis.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is this true?

If Kosovo declares its independence today, I think it will bring into existence the first majority-Muslim European* state since the end of the Spanish Reconquest in the 15th century. Bosnia is plurality but not majority Muslim; in Albania proper, a majority are avowed atheists.

I know that the late 19th-century Balkans saw a number of new independent states as Ottoman power gradually crumbled, but I don't think any of these were ever majority-Muslim.

If true, this seems to me noteworthy-- a sign of European and human progress. The Battle of Vienna wasn't so terribly long ago. The idea that some European states would fight for the freedom of a Muslim people on European soil would have been unthinkable for centuries; one of the defining facts about "Europe" as a cultural and political space was that it wasn't Islamic.

NB: This does not mean that I think anyone should proceed with anything other than the greatest caution right now. Kosovo should be independent, but then so should Taiwan; and sometimes there may be a legitimate place for deference to the views of a local great power, even if those views themselves are illegitimate. Even if the western states all recognize Kosovo immediately, they should view that as the beginning of ongoing negotiations with Serbia and Russia, not the end of them.

*Yes, for these purposes I exclude Turkey or the Ottoman Empire from being a European state.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Come visit Montreal

Visiting faculty and postdoc fellowships at CREUM.

CREUM - 2008-2009 Senior fellowship programme

The University of Montreal’s Centre de recherche en éthique (CREUM) is inviting applications of professor-researchers in ethics, for residential fellowships which can vary in length according to individual circumstances. Applicants are expected to have at least a working knowledge of French.

The CREUM will offer to its fellows: a research grant up to 40,000$ CAN, an individual office, access to the services of the University of Montreal (libraries, sports center, etc.), and assistance for material organization of the stay. In return, the fellows are expected to pursue the research project submitted in their application, to participate in the Center's activities (conferences, seminars, lectures), and to present their work in progress in the context of Center's seminars and workshops. Application deadline: April 30th, 2008. For more information, please visit

CREUM - 2008-2009 Postdoctoral fellowship program

The University of Montreal’s Centre de recherche en éthique (CREUM) is inviting applications of postdoctoral researchers in ethics, for residential fellowships which can vary in length according to individual circumstances (maximum 27,000 $ CAN). Applicants are expected to have at least a working knowledge of French.

The CREUM will offer to its fellows: a postdoctoral grant of 3,000$ per month, an individual workstation, access to the services of the University of Montreal (libraries, sports center, etc.), and assistance for material organisation of the stay. In return, the fellows are expected to pursue the research project submitted in their application, to participate in the Center's activities (conferences, seminars, lectures), and to present their work in progress in the context of Center's seminars and workshops. Application deadline: April 30th, 2008. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Good news, bad news

The good news is that someone thought to do this.

The bad news is how desperately McGill needs it-- and how unlikely I fear it is that any reforms will actually happen as a consequence.

Cut the red tape contest

Can you identify a policy or process at McGill that has, or appears to have, no sound academic or administrative justification and that impairs service to current or prospective students?

Do you have an idea that we can implement to resolve the issue you have identified? What would work best for you? How would you like to see it resolved?

Send us your suggestions by February 22, 2008. The 10 best entries, judged on impact, cost/benefit, and innovation, received by that date will win $100 each.

While we may not be able to do away with all of the red tape on campus, we will bring the issues you submit to the attention of the responsible unit and report back to contestants about what progress we can make.

"No sound academic or administrative justification" is a demanding standard. It's the equivalent of asking for laws that would fail rational basis review in a U.S. court.

I expect there to be at least dozens of viable entries.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

New discoveries of old political science truths

Chris Bowers on superdelegates:

If the institution that exists to resolve disputes within the American center-left does not operate according to democratic principles, then I see no reason to continue participating within that institution. If that institution fails to respect democratic principles in its most important internal contest of all--nominating an individual for President of the United States--then I will quit the Democratic Party. And yes, I am perfectly serious about this. If someone is nominated for POTUS from the Democratic Party despite another candidate receiving more poplar support from Democratic primary voters and caucus goers, I will resign as local precinct captain, resign my seat on the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, immediately cease all fundraising for all Democrats, refuse to endorse the Democratic "nominee" for any office, and otherwise disengage from the Democratic Party through all available means of doing so.

Robert Michel's "Iron Law of Oligarchy," formulated in 1911 in reponse to his dismayed discovery that socialist parties including the German Social Democratic Party were not much different in their internal organizations and power structures from other parties:

"Who says organization, says oligarchy."

Friday, February 08, 2008

Scattered Friday thoughts

The talk yesterday was great fun. I haven't been in a serious exegesis-and-interpretation-of-Walzer conversation in many years, and there's a lot there worth talking about.

In the course of preparing the talk, I really had cause to think about the shape of Walzer's corpus. While he wrote excellent material both before and after this time, it seems to me that there's a 13-year stretch-- 1977-1990-- that's just stunning for breadth and scale of achievement. His published work from that era that I think are all major and enduring contributions, including four really quite distinct enduring books:

Just and Unjust Wars
"The Moral Standing of States"
"Philosophy and Democracy"
Spheres of Justice
"Liberalism and the Art of Separation"
"What Does It Mean to be an 'American'?"
"The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism"
Interpretation and Social Criticism
The Company of Critics

I've never read Radical Principles or Exodus and Revolution, but they were published in that timeframe too (as well as a steady stream of other articles not mentioned here). And to close it out, his second set of Tanner Lectures, "Nation and Universe," that provides the most sophisticated statement of his views of cultures as boundaries of moral and epistemic meaning, was published (only in the Tanner volumes, not as a freestanding publication) in 1990. I'm pleased to see that "Nation and Universe" has finally been republished in an accessible format-- in the new David Miller edited collection of Walzer's papers, Thinking Politically, Yale UP. It's been hard to come by, and it's an important piece of the puzzle for thinking about Spheres of Justice. (So, by the way, is "The Moral Standing of States," something that gets overlooked because the latter gets lumped with Just and Unjust Wars and segmented off as part of the sub-subfield international or global justice.)


You know you live far north when you drive past a Winter Olympics venue, northbound, and think, "oh, that's good, almost halfway there..."

Seeing the tourist-friendly French language signs in northern upstate New York made me feel like home was on the horizon.

I've heard (and said) the Montreal greeting "bonjour-hi" so often that I don't quite notice it any more-- but I noticed and was charmed by the very Anglo-Canadian border guard who took my passport with a friendly "bonjour, eh?" Can't say that I've ever heard that before.


I hardly ever just post links without comment to vastly-higher-traffic blogs. If you're the kind of person who's likely to enjoy Crooked Timber, you're a lot more likely to read it yourself than to follow my links to it. But just in case, two good ones from the last few days: Henry Farrell, "Seeing Like Seeing Like A State" and John Holbo, "Rawls and Liberalism".


Finally, speaking of Rawls, I've occasionally referred to portions of Political Liberalism as auto-talmudic or auto-talmudism for their curious approach to commenting on Theory of Justice. (All of Rawls' best friends had taken a turn at interpreting TJ, and they seemed to enjoy it, so one can imagine him deciding to make an attempt at the same activity.) On a whim, it occurred to me to check google to see whether those logisms had been neo'd before. No hits for "auto-talmudic." But a few hits for "auto-talmudism"-- all as part of gobbldy car insurance spam sites. Not sure why, but that amused me.


One more pair of links to a vastly-higher-traffic blog: Eugene Volokh on sharia arbitration and again.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On the road

Today: "Michael Walzer on Political, Moral, and Cultural Pluralism," at Siena College's yearlong symposium on Walzer's thought. The sign says that the lecture is open to the public, so if blogreaders happen to be in Loudonville, NY...