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personal convenienceOver on the First Things blog, Robert George has blessed us, yet again, with the conventional and convenient wisdom of (Catholic) neoconservatism. The post, titled “No Mere Marriage of Convenience: The Unity of Economic and Social Conservatism,” is a sustained argument for just how convenient this marriage of utility and principle really is, and why it should continue. Along the way, George likens traditional conservatives to the Amish, intimating their hostility to higher learning and economic freedom.

More than anything, George’s post reads like an application for funding from a Republican-leaning foundation. It is not helpful to his argument that he so clearly seeks to show well-off potential supporters how their own economic interests are tied in with his largely academic interests.

In what bills itself as a hopeful post-mortem on the recent elections, George pleads for social conservatives and small government Republicans to kiss and make up, recognizing how much they need each other in the face of a resurgent left. Indeed, when it comes to recriminations, “both sides should knock it off.” Now, civility is almost always a good thing, and when recriminations stop us from having a full, frank exchange of ideas, they are simply bad. But sometimes recriminations are deserved and necessary to clarify the character of positions and people who present themselves as our leaders. And sometimes it is necessary for a frank discussion actually to be frank, and to go to considerations of what we value most highly, rather than to consist of rather craven claims of mutual self-interest in the face of common dangers posed by the enemy without.

Most important, George’s attempt to paper over differences within the Republican party in effect furthers his career-spanning attempt to paper over the problems with his own doctrine: namely, that liberalism (or, if you prefer, Democratic Capitalism) is simply good because it happens to coincide, in his mind, with what he, following John Finnis, posits as intrinsically good. The doctrine is called “New Natural Law.” Many of us prefer to refer to it as “Non Natural Law” because it has little to do with that tradition of thought concerning the order of the universe and its moral implications with its roots in Aristotle and Cicero, its most extensive statement in Saint Thomas Aquinas, and its continued vitality most especially within the tradition of Christian Humanism. It is, rather, a watered down Progressivism rooted in Hume, Kant, and a consensus definition of rationality few actual people share.

George presents himself as the patron and defender of liberal democracy as the philosophy and system of individual rights, rooted in recognition of the “divine Author of our lives and liberties.” This specious deism is supposed to evoke the Declaration of Independence with its mention of rights coming from “nature’s God.” Yet we would do well to remember that, contra-George, rights as currently understood by our liberal Supreme Court and many if not most Americans, have little to do with any deity, and everything to do with the idea of a sovereign self, owing nothing to anyone or anything and with an intrinsic right to maximal individual autonomy in the name of justice. And the grounds of that justice? Much like the sources of the Basic Goods George urges upon us, it has been placed safely beyond question or discussion by a narrow vision of consensus that rules irrational or even insane attempts to delve beneath the surface of the putative good on offer or even show its subservience to a higher, more fundamental good.

In point of fact, as numerous historians, including Brian Tierney and Harold J. Berman have argued, the rights we enjoy did not burst full-blown from the mind of some philosopher who magically divined the Divine Will. They are the product of centuries of development rooted in traditions of thought and action, growing from an understanding of human nature and the development of legal institutions utterly foreign to George’s simplistic calculus. (Here I heartily recommend the first volume of Berman’s Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition to those interested in further reading.)

But I digress. My point is not merely that George’s contempt for history blinds him to the true grounds of the institutions he claims to value. It is, more importantly, that his supposed defense of the goods of social conservatism is nothing of the kind. For he defends, not the goods rooted in human nature and the order of existence, but the utilitarian throw-offs of our traditional social order.

George purports to defend three great “pillars” of liberal democracy—human dignity, the traditional family, and a fair and effective system of law and government. Yet, where the third good is, in his hands, an empty truism, the first two are highly contested today, in no small measure because of the rejection of a higher law understanding of society and the person in which he himself is engaged.

George defends his pillars by merely listing good things they provide. He urges, for example, that the family is our best means of providing health, education, and welfare. Such a claim is of no use, of course, if one seeks to defend the family against a feminist or gay rights activist who believes it is intrinsically unjust. A culture war occurs because there are fundamentally differing conceptions of what makes for a good society, not because people failed to notice the beneficial consequences of arrangements they find intrinsically abhorrent.

Of course, George is not speaking to feminists and/or gay rights activists. He is more concerned to win over those economic “conservatives” (the same people who fund Republican-leaning foundations) who seek to merely sit out the culture wars.  This, he rightly notes, is foolish, because no economy will survive the breakdown of families and the virtues they instill. But can such a utilitarian argument, even if true, sway a utilitarian—particularly when billions already have been made off the establishment of the materialistic, work-centered, two-income household and its driving down of wage rates? Hardly. And the undermining of family life is taken by increasing numbers of Americans, particularly in the business world, as mere collateral damage in pursuit of the true goal, namely material-well being. George has no hope of changing any significant number of hearts or minds. At best he can keep the funding coming as he continues to present the “conservative” alternative to actual, social conservatism.

To the extent George bothers appealing to social conservatives it is in his assertion that human dignity and the traditional family are goods and abortion is bad. Gee, thanks.

George’s twin goals, here, are to convince Republican businesspeople to be less hostile toward social conservatives and to convince social conservatives to buy into a kind of virtuous dynamism he believes on offer from democratic capitalism. The source of this virtuous dynamism? As George states quite explicitly, it consists of a partnership between elite educational institutions and their funders among wealthy industrialists.

This tiresome self-promotion is nothing if not consistent with what we have heard for years from “leaders” of “conservatism” within the Republican establishment. Sadly, the “courage” ascribed to one who has staked out the position of “lone conservative voice” on campus by speaking out on certain fundamental social issues, without actually questioning the underlying world-view that leads to the culture of death, has diverted much conservative energy and support into establishment causes and away from worthier endeavors. The hope for a dynamic, virtuous society lies not with a non-natural law doctrine propounded at corporate (and government) funded elite institutions. It lies in the education and rearing of children in the continuous traditions that actually produced the American way of life now receiving, at best, lip service from our establishment.

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10 replies to this post
  1. I don't have time to read George's piece again, but per your statement, "My point is not merely that George’s contempt for history blinds him . . . " where do you find a "contempt" for history in what he wrote? Because it's ahistorical, or just that he doesn't like it, or ignores it? Just appreciate a clarification. Thanks.

  2. Holy cow. I was left a bit cold by George's piece before, but this certainly warms me to it.

    It seems to me that Tocqueville would defend George's confidence in the virtue-fostering dynamism of democratic capitalism (even if he acknowledges the danger of the abuses of industrialism).

    Liberalism is not at odds with natural law. It is a reflection of the reality that human dignity requires that, whenever possible, people be persuaded rather than forced. If you find it troublesome that people will often use their freedom poorly, then you do not appreciate the meaning of free will.

  3. A valid and highly useful question. "Ahistorical" may not necessarily denote "contempt for history" in every instance. But discussions of social goods like rights and social institutions like the family, by ignoring their historical development, ignore a fundamental aspect of their nature. Human dignity and the traditions that protect it (e.g. rights and proper families) are hard fought and fragile social realities, not logical constructs. Our ability to recognize and act to support even the most basic self-evident goods depends upon our understanding of those goods and the ways in which those goods already are institutionalized in our societies–on the traditions within which we make our lives. This is why it took centuries for human rights to develop in practice, why the natural family is so often at risk, and why liberalism, with its emphasis on individual autonomy at the expense of social institutions, ends up degrading the person. Even consent, which some equate with liberalism, predates that ideology by centuries and is losing all meaning as one casts a ballot every few years to place a given slate of politicians at the head of a vast bureaucracy which then continues to run most of one's life.

  4. No doubt, the objectification of the human person, including the sexual objectification of the human person, as a result of the contraception mentality, has led to the break down of the Family unit, and thus as Pope John Paul II stated, as the Family goes, so goes the Nation, and I would add, the World. This doesn't change the fact that a conservative can still be true to their conservative principles, while supporting an increase in taxes for those individuals who are in a higher income bracket in a way that would still provide incentive for the creation and sustaining of businesses, while allowing those in the higher income bracket to still reap generous benefits, and contribute to the overall wealth of this Nation. It is nonsense to suggest that a conservative should have to sacrifice his conservative principles in regards to Life, and Liberty, in a Country that professes to be, One Nation, under God, and thus indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

  5. As a businessman who is also a Catholic, I am inclined to agree with both sides of this debate and wish it were a reflection of the national discourse rather than a merely sectarian phenomena.

  6. I've been reading Tocqueville for over fifty years. Where did I miss his "confidence in the virtue-fostering dynamism of democratic capitalism?" I know you say this in the context of George's confidence, but I take it that you attribute the same confidence to Tocqueville. And I sure wish that liberalism were as simple and benign as you portray it.

  7. Regarding Tocqueville, I am in agreement with Dr. Wilson, not only out of deference for the duration of his reading, but chiefly because Tocqueville's praise of the industrious character of Americans is indeed outweighed by his penetrating critique of indivdualism and the tendency of a democratic people to love equality over liberty. I suppose Dr. Frohnen is right in this regard: there is a sort of tendency to flatter the demos by the optimistic apologists for the liberal democratic consensus, when what liberalism needs are gadflies, not flatterers.

  8. Prof. Frohnen, I believe there is another way to understand this position other than in crudely utilitarian terms. Since one of your issues with George's piece was it's secularism, allow me to attempt to rescue his general position by way of a distinctly non-secular appeal.

    The Apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthian church declared “I am made all things to all men that I may by all means save some.” As an example of this principle he states “To them that are under the law as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law”. What is Paul actually saying here? He is certainly not saying that his intention is to violate his own teachings and to, in this case, embrace the Hebrew law in order to convert the unbeliever (for that would be self defeating since his goal is to move this person away from the law and on to the Gospel). What he is saying is that methodologically, he begins his appeal where the person on the other side of the discussion is, and works from there to lead him to the truth in question. Now in his Epistle to the Romans Paul says this “ For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead…”. One might naturally expect any attempt to move someone in the direction of the world beyond this world to eschew any reference to this world, yet this passage indicates the opposite. It suggests that perhaps the best means by which to turn someone’s attention away from this world may be to focus their attention upon this world and to demonstrate the ways in which it is incomplete and unsatisfactory in itself. What George does in this article is point to the ways in which economic production and consumption in itself are incomplete and inadequate. The result is a refocusing of attention upon things such as family, what it entails etc. The door has now been opened to a discourse on the most important matters. The result we should anticipate is not an immediate conversion to our perspective, our goal is to simply turn their attention and open their ears to these issues. The extreme Libertarian by the way does not view himself as amoral, he most typically takes the position that his stance as a Libertarian is the most moral alternative. He can be addressed in the language of morality. Discourse is essential to the success of the Conservative movement, and it is only natural that it must begin within the political party that currently best represents our values as Conservatives.

  9. How does this personal attack on George help the cause of traditional marriage? Prof. Frohnen is disappointed in George’s argumentation and accuses him (without evidence) of promoting himself with unsavory Republicans. Who cares?

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