You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. October 18, 2010

The word is conservatism. I’ve been over this territory before – the dominant strand on the American right that dubs itself “conservative” is not only liberal, but a pure form of liberal that goes straight back to the Enlightenment. With the rise of the tea party, this disconnect is getting worse, not better. Here we go again. This person has written a post that almost says black is white, that the modern American liberal movement that fancies itself “conservative” is deeply respectful of community and fully in tune with the view of society laid down by Aquinas. If they were true conservatives, this guy might have a point. But they are not.

True conservatism is based on the notion of prudence – cautious incremental change and respect for the social order, including legitimate authority. These fake conservatives see society as a collection of individuals, where individual rights and individual freedoms are the highest virtues. Community exists because free individuals choose to belong or not to belong. Society is not organic, but a group of individuals knitted together by a voluntary social contract. The state is a purely human agency designed to enforce the social contract and whose chief function is law and order. This government must hover on the sidelines. For “as government expands, our freedoms are often simultaneously shrunk”.

There is a whole imagined philosophical lineage behind this position. According it its adherents, it comes directly from ancient Greece, does a very quick pit-stop at late medieval Italian republicanism, takes a whiff of Edmund Burke, and lands flat on the Plymouth Rock, endowed by God to create a new promised land. America might not be perfect, but it is different, it is exceptional, and it is better.

This is a cheeky caricature, but the exaggeration is only slight. These guys always brush over or obfuscate the debt owed by American political thought to the Enlightenment. For them, the Enlightenment is all about the dark days of the French Revolution, which never touched American thought (well, maybe a faint brush stroke through Jefferson, but with no lasting influence). This, of course, ignores the English and Scottish Enlightenment, which was every bit as dangerous. And to claim the French revolutionaries were children of Hobbes (both directly and through Rousseau) while ignoring Hobbes’ influence in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment is a little bizarre.

And anyway, the dividing line is not really between the English/ Scottish Enlightenment and the continental Enlightenment. Both spring from the same roots – the individualism that comes from the nominalist revolution against the Catholic intellectual order. Many strands came out of the nominalist revolution. Protestantism is one of them – and American Protestantism in particular has embraced an individualism with little basis in Catholic tradition. The real split in the Enlightenment was between the Hobbesians and the Cartesians, where the Hobbesians had a more pessimistic view of human capacity – but their source is the same. Descartes influenced the dominant continental philosophical tradition. Hobbes influenced Locke, Hume, Smith and Mill, and this thought became dominant in the Anglo-American tradition. Different strands, same Enlightenment.

None of this is really conservative. The political thought that flowed from all strands of the Enlightenment became the liberalism that the Church opposed so strongly. For Catholicism has always seen society as an organic whole, not as a mere collection of individuals. This social order puts the state at the top, charged with oversight of the common good. There is nothing “small government” about it. Think about the papal states. The Habsburg empire. Tsarist Russia.

The Church has always insisted that the state had a duty to care for the poor and promote economic justice. This is the framework that can be traced to Aquinas. It is most certainly in opposition to Hobbesian individualism, but it also gives no support to the idea of state intrusion in economic life as a threat to individual freedom and community.

The genius of Catholic social teaching is that it applied old thinking to new circumstances. As Pope Benedict put it in Deus Caritas Est, “the issue of the just ordering of the collectivity had taken a new dimension with the industrialization of society in the nineteenth century…the growth of a class of salaried workers provoked radical changes in the fabric of society. The relationship between capital and labour now became the decisive issue..Capital and the means of production were now the new source of power which, concentrated in the hands of a few, led to the suppression of the rights of the working classes, against which they had to rebel”.

And so Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo XIII has argued strongly that market outcomes are not necessarily synonymous with justice. Popes condemned unregulated competition and called for the state to step in and protect workers and the poor from injustice. They regarded free market liberalism as just as poisonous and dangerous as the collectivization of socialism. Under this new corpus of teaching, the state was not seen as a mere guardian of law and of good order. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, the state supports the common good indirectly through subsidiarity and directly through solidarity. It is called upon to protect the weaker members of society, especially through generous social programs and a strong labor code. This was a profoundly conservative impulse – these rules and safety nets were put in place to restore some moral rules to economic life that were trampled underfoot by industrial capitalism. Perhaps Blessed John XXIII put it most succinctly when we wrote in Mater et Magistra that “as for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters.”

But this is precisely what these liberals-disguised-as-conservatives object to most – a role for the state in economic matters. They seem to have no problem with government intrusion in areas of national security and in regulating public morality. I suppose the extremist liberals dubbed libertarians are at least consistent here. The others, not so much.

This philosophy is not only inconsistent, it is dangerous. Since the 1980s, this liberal right has been attempting to roll back the state in economic life, while ramping it up in national security. The goal has been to weaken or undo regulation and social safety nets that have in been in place for half a century. Their take-no-prisoners approach flies in the face of the notion of prudence, and could lead to great social disruption.

At the same time, this fake conservatism has veered in a heavily populist direction, scorning elites and any notion of legitimate authority that must be respected (outside the military, that is). One shocking figure is that none of the Republicans running for Senate accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming. The tea parties embody the worst elements of the mob rule, and mobs rarely serve the common good. There are many antecedents in history – the one that comes to mind is the riot of the Blues and the Greens against the tax policies of emperor Justinian that led to the Nika riots and the burning of Constantinople. There is no way that any of this can be seen as conservative.

At the end of the day, this person makes the argument that government intrusion in economic life supplants private charity. Taken to its extreme, there is a point here. The state cannot meet all of our needs, just as the market cannot meet all of our needs. As Pope Benedict put it so well, every person needs loving concern. An absence of love leads to alienation. Social structures can never make charity superfluous. But likewise, the importance of personal charity does not diminish our collective responsibility to put just  structures in place. To claim otherwise conjures up a cold dark world where grace and nature are radically sundered. For how can private charity alone meet the needs of those millions with no healthcare, or inadequate healthcare? How can private charity alone take care of pensioners and the destitute? How can private charity alone took after the 15 million people who are unemployed? And how can taking the government out of the economy protect us from the forms of greed (human nature, after all) that led to the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression?

Catholic social teaching exists for a reason. Let’s not be blinded by ideology.

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