How Shall We Live?
May 19, 2010
How Shall We Live?
Ironic that Jean-Jacques Rousseau first posited civilization as the problem, and then promptly advocated employing statism, that is, more civilization, as the solution. But how can civilization simultaneously be both the problem and the solution regarding the self-same question: How shall we live?
There are fundamental differences between politically liberal assumptions and the corresponding conservative ones. Liberals have a tendency to think in terms of axioms when it comes to political discourse, and the putative, but non-existent, infallibility thereof leads to the inability of liberals to connect those concepts to the real world. The result is that policies are superimposed on the world that have no truck with reality, and great damage can be done because of a wholly uncomprehending method.
Liberals also have a tendency to see things in global, larger-than-life terms. Practically nothing is mundane. They are much more likely to claim they know the meaning of history, that they know how to improve society, how to engineer the just society, and they are much more likely to possess some kind of eschatological vision. Heaven on Earth will prevail if only we follow their prescriptions, they would have us believe. Moreover, they believe in the existence of the redeeming force of history, and that they are a part of it. This is what gives their quasi-apocalyptic vision its supposed legitimacy. They are millenarian almost to the point of sounding like astrology.
Thus the redemptive force they put their faith in is the proletariat of Karl Marx. Somehow the proles are better people than the rest of, without discussion, and the rich are evil, without discussion, unless they assist sedulously in the furtherance of the dissolution of the existing paradigm. Because of this the political pronouncements and preachments of liberals have a sound to them reminiscent of a prosecuting lawyer. The redemptive force will take us to a new, juster society — that’s all you need to know. But just how that will happen, the mechanism of it, is never explained — merely move things around, mainly wealth, and somehow it will all turn out. What could go wrong? Don’t ask questions — Unbeliever!
Furthermore, liberals are firm advocates of centralization, that is, a pretty aggressive statism. It is axiomatic, again without explanation, that the more we nationalize and deemphasize the private sector and its competition, the more right everything will be. This is the influence of Rousseau, who didn’t exactly advocate that we all go live in the bushes like animals, but who did advocate an ever-accelerating process of collectivization as the solution to the corrosive effect of civilization on the individual human soul. But Rousseau was a cruel, mean-spirited, ungrateful sponge — his vanity, his endless self-pity, his irascibility, and his bullying all go together into one all-too-human package. It can be argued plausibly that his innate mean-spiritedness brought forth his doctrines, and that the doctrines in their turn aggravated that underlying mean-spiritedness. In sum, he was a thoroughly miserable person morally. To listen to him about how to live is to take the arbitrary for the transcendent, and that’s a big mistake.
Conservatives do not, by contrast, live bound up inside imprisoning axioms. They live much more in the real world as it unfolds in individual moments, and don’t feel it necessary to see everyday events in terms of global, cosmic justice and its opposite. Conservatives feel obligated by settled human customs, but not by nouveau visions du jour. They believe not that civilization has corrupted man, as Rousseau did, but rather that man is originally fallen in his moral character, and that civilization is the Leviathan that controls and overawes that innate, original amorality of all humans. Experience is the best teacher for conservatives, since that’s the quickest way to find out the compelling, immediate nature of things, through the medium of observing the real phenomenon itself. To forever consult axioms that are removed from the world and from our experience of it, as a seer in astrology would, is pure craziness to a conservative.
Conservatives are therefore against centralization and statism and collectivization and socialism. They think that putting government in charge of as many things as possible is to make us vulnerable to precisely that fallen nature of man. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Government should always be limited so that it can’t take on a role of omnipresence, and thereby reinstate that flawed human character, writ large now as Big Brother, that we wanted to control in the first place (that would be taking the arbitrary for the transcendent, too).
The US Constitution is an admirable example of the conservative viewpoint: Government must control, but not become uncontrollable itself. Correlatively, conservatives want personal freedom to be untrammeled as much as possible. That’s what justice really is, that’s what makes life the exhilarating adventure it is — you are permitted to go as far as you can on your own merit. There’s no limit to the horizon of your possible accomplishments. Institutions must protect us from the unscrupulous “war of all against all” that Hobbes warned of, but not be so all-pervasive as to eliminate the joy of life. Competition is joyousness, not the dire wolf. It is the vehicle of your development. Eliminate private property, eliminate the free market, eliminate competition, and you’ve eliminated life itself. Life will be a gloomy prison yard from that point.
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