ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS NOT BE DONALD…:

The Trump-Biden Consensus on the Economy Is Bad for Business (Michael R. Strain, 1/30/24, Financial Times)


Donald Trump and Joe Biden differ in many important ways, but both reject the broad consensus that largely governed economic policy in the decades before Trump’s 2016 election — one that is generally supportive of business and in favour of free enterprise. This is bad for businesses, workers and consumers.

Take free trade and industrial policy. Senior officials from both administrations have explicitly argued for abandoning the international economic order built after the second world war in favour of a new consensus that relies more on government planning and less on market outcomes.

But Trump and Biden’s break with the past goes beyond protectionism. Ronald Reagan chose to use his last speech as president to praise immigrants. “We lead the world,” he said, “because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.” Trump, in contrast, charges immigrants with “poisoning the blood” of America. Biden, though much less extreme, has surprised his supporters by not being friendlier to migrants and the businesses that rely on them.

Of course, opposition to immigration comes naturally to Democrats, who view the migrants as labor competition, for Republicans it’s disgraceful.

LEAVE US REASON TOGETHER:

Eva Brann, National Treasure (Shaun Rieley, January 20th, 2024, Imaginative Conservatism)

In a moment when ideological certainties have usurped both ends of the political spectrum, Ms. Brann takes a more tentative, and, yes, more philosophical tack.

It is important to point out that her conservatism is not, in the first place, political. Rather, it consists in what she calls a “temperamental disposition,” a way of imaginatively addressing oneself to the structure of things. Political positions flow from prudential application of this disposition, but political applications are secondary to a larger appreciation of what is.

This disposition is further clarified in her distinction between “questioning” and “question-asking”: whereas “questioning” is “secular inquisition, sneakily hostile inquiry” whose “intention is to skewer an object and barbecue it,” its contrary “question-asking” is “the central non-technique of reflection,” which “affirms, at least as a starting point, the matter asked after.”

Question-asking, then, begins with the givenness of reality, and an appreciation of its complexity. It is rooted in a humility, yet possessed with a confidence in the ability of human reason to ascertain the nature of things. “The conservative is always in the middle of things,” she says, “betwixt and between, interestedly engaged in the world’s paradoxes and oppositions.” This is the very opposite of ideology, which, wholly uninterested in paradox, begins with outrage at the world as given, and presumes that remaking reality is a simple task involving nothing more than the application of abstract principles.

The Book of Proverbs tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). In other words, wisdom begins in humility, the recognition that one is not the source of one’s own being.

Through her many books and essays, Ms. Brann ably demonstrates this principle in action, thoughtfully engaging great books, questioning various aspects of reality, and always seeking to understand with humility.

ASSUMING STUPIDITY IS AN ACT OF GENEROSITY:

Stupidity as Moral Negligence (J.P. de Ruiter, 10 Jan 2024, Quillette)

For instance, in debates about the safety of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, opponents will often claim that “the science is new.” This is demonstrably false. The science is not new, and abundant data now show that mRNA vaccines are not only highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but that these vaccines are also very safe. Nevertheless, while “the science is new” is a stupid argument against vaccination, it requires mature and advanced cognitive skills.

First, the vaccine skeptic displays awareness that their decision not to get vaccinated needs to be defended at all. If the question were “Why don’t you get a dog?”, an expression of preference—such as “I don’t like dogs”—would be sufficient to end the discussion. There is, after all, no social pressure to own a dog. Vaccination campaigns, on the other hand, produce clear societal benefits, including protection of the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable from potentially fatal infection, slowing and containing the spread of disease, preventing the overloading of medical facilities, and so on. Skeptics, therefore, realize that the refusal to get vaccinated demands justification. This requires a level of social intelligence that would be very challenging to achieve for people with genuine cognitive limitations.

Second, the claim that “the science is new” appeals to a chain of four inferential assumptions, each of which requires complex reasoning skills:

Invocations of “the science” in these discussions are invariably vague, but the skeptic appeals to a common understanding of the term—“the scientific research that underlies the development and testing of mRNA vaccines”—so they can be confident that its meaning is intelligible to opponents. This requires reflexive reasoning and taking an interlocutor’s perspective into account.


The skeptic assumes that new or inadequately tested medical science may be unreliable, which requires some knowledge of how such science works.

If the science that underlies the development and testing of the new vaccine is unreliable, the vaccine might harm the recipient.

If it is potentially dangerous to take the vaccine, this is a legitimate reason for refusing to get vaccinated, on the grounds that it is reasonable to avoid doing things that might cause harm to oneself.


So, even though “the science is new” is a stupid argument, employing it to defend one’s refusal to get vaccinated requires mature and sophisticated cognitive skills. Other anti-vax arguments follow the same pattern. A conspiracy theorist who believes that Big Pharma wants to subdue the human population by putting microchips in their blood would need to make use of the same sophisticated cognitive skills. That arguments like these are often provided by and copied from opinion leaders (bloggers, podcasters, and social-media influencers) does not substantially alter this analysis. Most of us get most of our arguments from others, but we must still judge whether, when, and how they can be used to defend our own beliefs.

Generally, the ability to recognize how and why a certain argument threatens (or supports) one’s belief, and to choose the most effective and energy-efficient way to counter (or employ) it, requires highly developed cognitive skills. Any Artificial Intelligence researcher attempting to implement these reasoning skills in an artificial agent would emphatically agree. Individuals with true cognitive limitations would not be able to chain these inferences together and come up with the counterargument “the science is new” in this context.

So, the claim that people who employ stupid arguments “can’t help it” because of their limited intelligence is not only condescending, it is also inaccurate.

CONSERVATISM CONSERVES LIBERALISM:

The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus (Matthew Rose, Summer 2016, National Affairs)

The key to understanding Neuhaus is to see him as a defender of a consensus, uniting commitments to both Christianity and liberalism, which he believed to be rooted firmly in American history and the truth about human society. Its central proposition, which Neuhaus defended in over 20 books and hundreds of articles, holds that American democracy depends on the moral beliefs and practices of religious believers. Neuhaus paired this with a second and more original thesis. He held that liberalism is itself endangered by those discouraging traditional religious voices from public deliberation. Secular liberalism is not a tautology, he maintained; it is a contradiction.

Neuhaus was this movement’s sharpest critic and keenest observer, as evidenced by his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, which examined the cultural conflicts that would define our politics for a generation. Neuhaus did more, however, than foresee the rise of secularist politics. He undertook the long work of articulating an alternative “public philosophy” and assembling an ecumenical network committed to its refinement and dissemination. Liberalism, he proposed, is founded on truths embedded in the American experience that can be discerned by any reasonable person: that human beings possess powers of rational deliberation, that these same powers make human community and self-government possible, and that both are grounded in the rights we possess from nature and God — the ultimate ground of human freedom and limited government.

More than half a decade after Neuhaus’s passing, the growing estrangement of both left and right from his vision makes it worth revisiting — and perhaps proposing anew.

HAVING FALLEN:

The Godfather of Permanent Things: a review of The Politics of Prudence  (Paul Krause, 1/07/24, Voegelin View)


This basic framework for understanding conservatism is then revealed through the chapters of this book, beginning with the “Errors of Ideology.” Ideology, as Kirk defines it, is a dogmatic approach to “transforming society and even transforming human nature.” The ideologue generally takes as their starting point a hatred of the current political order, a hatred of human nature, and a belief in progressive utopia from some thinker or book who revealed to humanity what could be. Ideology, as practiced by the ideologue, becomes “merciless” in that “march toward Utopia.” Drawing upon other thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Gerhart Niemeyer, Kirk sharply explains the essence of ideology as “promis[ing] mankind an earthly paradise.”


Conservatism, standing in opposition to ideology, isn’t about rejecting change or reform. Kirk, quoting Burke (one of his heroes), knows and affirms that change and reform are necessary (change is a natural part of existence). Change and reform can be good things too. However, the change and reform that conservatism promotes is within the limits of worldly and human nature—to make it better, not perfect. In the merciless march to Utopia promoted by ideology and conservatism’s opposition to ideological madness, Kirk implies that conservatism acts within the boundaries of nature (both earthly and humanly) while ideology seeks to eradicate nature to escape the limits of nature.

CONSERVATION REQUIRES PROGRESS:

Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Response to Change (J Tyler Syck, 1/02/24, American Daily Press)

[I]n the face of rapid industrialization, conservative politicians found themselves facing a difficulty never before encountered.

Conservatives at the time hit upon two different approaches. The first, pioneered by British Prime Minister Robert Peel, was to embrace the brave new post-industrial world wholesale, merely working to implement social change in a slow, moderate fashion. The second, largely a continuation of old-fashioned conservative strategy, was to stand opposed to all change and work to undo industrialization. Disraeli thought both approaches were deeply wrong-headed. Disraeli thought Peel’s approach was hardly different from liberalism. In Coningsby, the most political of his novels, he describes Peel’s brand of conservatism as “an attempt to construct a party without principles.” However, Disraeli thought the old guard of his party was little better. By attempting to stand against the forces of industrialization and stop all change, they were trying the impossible.

Disraeli offered a middle ground between these two approaches. He summarized his view in a speech delivered before a crowded banquet hall in Scotland: “In a progressive country change is a constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people,” which are the real source of human freedom and happiness. In short, Disraeli believed that the job of conservatives was neither to embrace nor to stop change but to work to preserve and adapt those institutions that sustain human flourishing. In practice, this meant a conservatism that provided generous welfare to the poor while at the same time bolstering custom, tradition, law, and religion.

ALL BEES ARE cREATED EQUAL:

Can the centre hold? From Mandeville’s bees to artificial intelligence (David Howell, 1/03/24, The Article)

Not many people nowadays read Bernard de Mandeville’s allegorical Fable of the Bees, first published in 1705. This described to a shocked world at the time how a large and successful beehive colony stayed bound together and prospered, so long as the bees all pursued their own interests within the law and their relationships one to another, as both individual and essentially social creatures, even if untidily, and with some backsliders. Each creature, by going about its reciprocal business, contributed, even if unintentionally, to the cement of society.

But once they stopped working for themselves and their individual and mutual needs, focussing instead on higher and more perfect state design for general welfare and behaviour, their precious equilibrium was rapidly lost. The framework of society, which no one had planned but in which not only bees but humankind too had always existed, fell apart. Without that glue, a cohesive society, which all the millions of their individual actions had created, crumbled and their relatively stable and balanced society disintegrated into chaos, division, grievance and immiseration.

So things would also turn out, went Mandeville’s thinly disguised message, where in human affairs states spent too much time and effort trying to iron out social blemishes, intervening to insist on virtuous conformity to blueprints of perfection and putting the interests of an increasingly separate and distanced state ahead of people’s daily lives and needs. It would all end badly, if ever it ended at all. […]

Coming from the global to the national level, the societal divisions, like deep flesh wounds, must be held with plaster strips and stitched together, not salted with more tired ideology from a past age and a partisan spectrum of beliefs and aims that now barely connect with the real issues before us. The heart of the matter is not race or gender or class, but reaching with new determination towards a capitalist system that shares, that is democratic, that is fair and spreads dignity and security to millions of households and financial literacy to an entire population, starting in the schools. This was the old dream of the Conservatives. The digital revolution brings a dream of genuinely widened ownership and financial justice to the edge of reality.

ONCE THEY GET HUMAN NATURE WRONG THEY’RE LOST:

Why conservatism is rational (Rhianwen Daniel, 12/27/23, The Critic)

Conservatism is typically contrasted with progressivism, where progressivism conjures up thoughts of improvement and moving forward with the times. Who in their right mind would oppose this? Hence the inference that if you’re not progressive, you must be regressive or reactionary.

Such an inference, however, rests on an equivocation whereby two senses of the term progressivism are fudged. The specific progressivism which conservatives have traditionally been sceptical of is the Enlightenment concept that society is perfectible via rational intervention. Such social, cultural and economic progress will cumulatively unfold with the succession of time.

This ideology, in its various guises, ranges from the political thought of Voltaire, Hegel and Marx, the Progressive Era, through to the post-civil rights proliferation of social justice and welfare reforms. Although it clearly differs from the everyday sense of the term, equivocating between both senses all too easily yields the conclusion that conservatism opposes progress without qualification.

The fact, however, is that conservatism concerns the optimal rate of change, as opposed to resisting it altogether. Indeed, conservatives have always maintained that change is necessary to conserving institutions in the first place. As Burke puts it, “a state without the means of some change is without the means for its conservation.”

EVERYTHING GOOD:

PODCAST: Whit Stillman on ‘Metropolitan,’ a Christmas Movie (SONNY BUNCH, DEC 16, 2023, Bulwark Goes to Hollywood)


This week I’m thrilled to be joined by Whit Stillman, the director of, among other features, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Love and Friendship. He’s on the show today to discuss Metropolitan and the way it has been embraced as a classic Christmas movie, as well as the evolution of the indie film business over the last 40 years or so.