January 25, 2006


Of Patriotism and Puppet Shows (Douglas Kern, 25 Jan 2006, Tech Central Station)

Liberalism eats itself. (And by liberalism, I mean the rights-based liberalism of Locke and the Founding Fathers, rather than the popular moniker for leftism.) Liberalism cannot accept its own validity because it cannot cease to pick at the scabs of its “weaknesses or inadequacies.” Liberalism is a rational and open system of governance, and such a system encourages endless questioning and self-scrutiny. This self-scrutiny promotes honesty, tolerance, and moral progress, but it also breeds self-doubt and instability. Nothing is ever permanently settled when one really convincing argument can change everything.

Liberalism only accepts arrangements and authorities that can provide reasonable, convincing answers to the question "Why?" But all societies rest upon unreasonable and somewhat arbitrary assertions about what the good is, and how to preserve it. Inquiry into such assertions either ends in tautology ("It just is") or recourse to the transcendent; either way, such inquiry ends in the unanswerable. Liberalism will not accept “It just is” or “God says so” or even the lame compromise of “The nature of man requires it” as an answer. Such answers rest upon fundamental beliefs about the world rather than rational proofs, and liberalism can only tolerate beliefs – it cannot endorse them.

Moreover, for all its rationality, liberalism requires irrational sacrifices. It is irrational to vote, when your single vote won’t matter. It is irrational to involve yourself in political controversies that will never affect you. It is irrational to volunteer to die in combat for your country, when you could stay at home and lead a rich, fulfilling life. A rational, liberal society will wither and die without citizens willing to act irrationally and illiberally in defense of rationality and liberalism. And yet liberalism cannot privilege such selfless, irrational acts; to the extent that liberal societies do so, they indulge in unprincipled exceptions.

To survive, liberalism cannot be entirely consistent. We conceal this fact from ourselves with noble lies, and puppet shows.

The dishonesty of the charade troubles us.

Mr. Kern is, on this rare occassion, quite wrong. That the Founders weren't "liberals" is abundantly obvious from their premising the rights they recognized on their being gifts from the Creator. And while neocons and other intellectuals are necessarily bothered by the fact that there is no other sustainable way to arrange a durable and decent society than on this faith basis, there's little evidence that the great bulk of believing Americans cares that rationalism is incoherent.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 25, 2006 11:13 AM

Nowhere is the optimum balance struck between faith and reason more evident than in the founding documents and the early history of the republic. The author, like contemporary liberal/leftists has a blind spot which he refuses to remedy. The history stares him in the face although he just can't come to terms with it. Doctrinaire, American secularists who have become radical materialists, occupy a kind of parallel intellectual universe where the plain and simple facts regarding the founding period must not intrude.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at January 25, 2006 12:26 PM

Agreed Tom, but you need to look at the premise from which this guy is operating: The history of what men did means nothing if the premise of liberalism is that "what men did" could be in error. The premise that "the way things are working is good enough" is irrelevant if "the way things are" can be made better (whatever "better" means).

And I guess that's the sticking point: Liberalism cannot define what "better" is. Rather, it DECLARES what "better" is NOT. It is NOT FAITH. NOT CUSTOM. NOT HISTORY. NOT TRADITION. And to the extent that people "vote" to say that Faith, custom, history and tradition are "better", liberalism will disagree and be anti-democratic out of principle. (I don't know what I want, but I DO know what I DON'T WANT.)

Posted by: Ptah at January 25, 2006 12:47 PM

Kerns is troubled by the reliance of Liberalism on axioms. Axioms by definition cannot be deduced from anything else. He adopts a positivist worldview and then wonders why it founders just the same way as positivism did. Kurt Godel, call Mr. Kerns please.

Some of his later comments actually reference a sort of 'tragedy of the commons':

It is irrational to volunteer to die in combat for your country, when you could stay at home and lead a rich, fulfilling life.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at January 25, 2006 12:52 PM

A single vote doesn't matter?

Really. Do tell.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 25, 2006 1:26 PM

Sandy: Kern's alluding to the theory of rational ignorance, which asserts that the marginal value of a vote isn't great enough to make a well-informed vote worth the time and effort.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 25, 2006 1:35 PM

There is the mystery which the "liberals" of every description choose or pretend to ignore.

Those virtues, such a faith and valor, from which the "liberals" excuse themselves, are only irrational for the parasite and cheat. Such a one is a leech on the prosperity, freedom and security provided by the virtue of his neighbors.

The irrationality of his position is that he and his neighbors all would be worse off if everyone behaved as dishonestly as he.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 25, 2006 6:17 PM

or that everyone not a leech would be better off if there were no leeches.

Posted by: toe at January 25, 2006 7:11 PM

joe shropshire's linked page explains that Kern is misinterpreting the theory of rational ignorance:

[All emph. add.] A look at costs and benefits not only explains why few citizens understand the subtleties of most government policies, but it also explains why about one half of the eligible voters in the United States do not vote. The probability that one's vote will be the crucial vote that decides an important election is small. Even if one's vote is the crucial vote that breaks the tie, one may not like the outcome--many people regret the way they voted when they compare actual performance with campaign promises. Given these small benefits compared to the costs of time and transportation that voting entails, it is not surprising that many people who are eligible to vote do not. What is surprising is that the percentage of people voting is not even smaller. It seems likely that there are other benefits to voting that have not yet been mentioned.

Politics is in many ways a spectator sport, with all the excitement and drama of football or baseball. Voting may be enjoyable in the same way as watching and cheering on a favorite ball team. Indeed, voting against a politician one does not like is enjoyable, even if it does not result in his defeat. Another explanation for voting is that people have a sense of public duty. They want to be good citizens, and voting may seem important regardless of its effect--the act of voting itself can be important as a symbolic act.

Kern writes:

Moreover, for all its rationality, liberalism requires irrational sacrifices. It is irrational to vote, when your single vote wont matter. It is irrational to involve yourself in political controversies that will never affect you. It is irrational to volunteer to die in combat for your country, when you could stay at home and lead a rich, fulfilling life. A rational, liberal society will wither and die without citizens willing to act irrationally and illiberally in defense of rationality and liberalism. And yet liberalism cannot privilege such selfless, irrational acts...

Mr. Kern doesn't believe that voting, shaping society through argument, or risking death to promote specific philosophies or geopolitical outcomes is "rational", and that's because he irrationally discards half of the benefits to be obtained by those behaviors.
Simply because those benefits are immaterial doesn't mean that they're unimportant, or nonexistent.

As we've spoken of many times in this forum, raising children is an irrational act in modern times, IF one only considers the material costs and benefits, as might do an accountant.
However, humans aren't accountants, we're economists... And, as every economist knows, costs and benefits can be either fiscal, or sociological/psychological.
That's why individual amateur investors tend to make the exactly incorrect decisions when there are major shifts in the stock markets - for many of them, the psychological costs of selling into a down market, and acknowledging and locking in their losses, is greater than the financial cost of riding their holdings down. Even pros can get caught up in that - witness Bernie Ebbers.

So, for the same reasons why it's ENTIRELY rational for most people to have children, it's worthwhile to vote, or to shape society, even if in ways that don't directly affect oneself.
The psychological benefits of being heard are often worth the costs of participating, in varying degrees for differing people, depending on personality and situation.

The overwhelming majority of people who oppose drilling in ANWR have no desire to visit the place, nor would they enjoy it if they won an all-expense paid trip to the bleak and mosquito-plagued part of ANWR where the drilling would take place.
Further, they're irrationally goring their own oxen, if we consider solely the nonexistent benefits of an unmolested ANWR coastal plain, vs. the modest but unmistakable costs of buying two billion barrels of crude oil from foreign sources, instead of producing them domestically from ANWR.

The struggle there is about something larger than a patch of tundra or a few billion barrels of go-juice.
The seemingly irrational becomes understandable, when we go beyond the merely physical.

As for dying in combat on a foreign shore, that's not necessarily irrational either, nor "selfless".
The most fundamental human urge, beyond simple individual survival, is to procreate, and to see one's progeny be successful.

If that success, or even the continued existence of one's offspring, is threatened by the actions of a foreign peoples, is it not eminently logical to attempt to eliminate that threat, even at the risk of one's own death ?
Further, isn't it also logical to allow the enemy the honor of dying for his country in his own country, as opposed to in ours, and to keep the collateral damage confined to the enemy territory as well ?

Kern bizarrely assumes that it's irrational to go willingly (if not happily) into combat, and postulates that the alternative is to put up one's feet and contentedly smoke a pipe-bowl of whatever one smokes, while also acknowledging that the latter person cannot live in comfort without the actions of the former.

That seems to be a puzzle, but the reality is simple.
People often choose to bear the cost of a POSSIBILITY of death, in return for the reward of a PROBABILITY of a life of comfort afterwards, in the successfully-defended society.
Further, there are other sociological rewards for being a victorious warrior, in American society, and we should not discount the power of social peer-pressure and expectation.

Finally, when reading the whole piece, I was struck by Mr. Kern's assumption that everyone shares his crippling self-doubt and lack of self-esteem.
While the examined life does require a constant self-questioning about why one is doing or believing something, and whether previous assumptions and decisions are still valid, such does not mean that one cannot reach conclusions about pros vs. cons.

This ain't a perfect world, and sometimes we have to settle for the lesser evil, but definitive evaluations are possible, and worth making, even though we will sometimes make mistakes.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 7:46 PM

Michael: Thank you for that fine essay.

Allow me to offer another perspective on what has peen termed "rational ignorance." This view on the matter is the conservativism of Cicero, Bruke and Russel Kirk, among others, imperfectly buried in my earlier inadequate comment.

Each of us to some extent, and most of us to a large extent, rationally choose both to accept the ways of the ancestors--Cicero's mos maiorum and Burke's tradition--and also to defer to those of superior wisdom and experience.

Now submission to the ways of the ancestors and deference to authority are directly rational as being in the interest of the people of which the actor is a part. The individual is better off for being part of a community extending backwards to ancestors and forward to posterity, up to those to whom deference is due and down to those by whom it is given.

Law, order, peace, prosperity, stability and victory are the dividends of this system. The logic of deference to authority and tradition lies in the mutual expectation that the other members of society will do the same.

Now here is the point I wish to add. What had been called the psychological benefits of civil society--the feeling of belonging and the like--explain why conservative values are satisfying and why conservative societies may inspire adherence. They do not explain why such societies work and why the prosper and endure.

The answer to those questions must come from the utility and efficiency of conservatism beyond its emotional satisfactions. After all, all the failed, crack-pot schemes of the past were emotionally satisfying to someone. Their failure was that they didn't work.

The ways of the ancestors work because they have been worked out over the centuries and are not the creation of a single rootless generation.

ia, The

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 25, 2006 10:12 PM

And what most Leftists miss is that it is capitalism / free market that permits people to make these non-material decisions. Everything that nationalized must be reduced to measureable values, i.e. completely materialized.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 26, 2006 11:36 AM