Tradition and federalism

Free institutions, free men, free thought—something of the sort is needed for tradition. Tradition isn’t forced, administered, or intentionally created. It grows out of experience in ways that can’t be predicted, and it’s completely at odds with rationalized control based on explicit standards.

Nonetheless, tradition also requires subordination. It requires that we view ourselves as part of a world we didn’t make ordered by an understanding greater than our own. It subordinates the pursuit of self-defined happiness to the more objective goods it proposes.

Tradition therefore rejects current understandings of both authority and freedom. If that’s so, what relevance can it have to political life today? Whatever it does it will be accused of inconsistency, rhetorically opposing “big government” while trying to put government in our bedrooms and establish a theocracy.

So what tack is best? If Christian or other traditionalists propose establishing their own views they won’t get anywhere soon. If they promote “freedom” and “human rights” in the abstract, as the Pope does, they will find themselves hoist with their own petard as those principles, interpreted in the sense now accepted, are applied against them. And if they drop out of politics altogether the same will happen and no-one will even hear their complaints as they get rolled over.

The only workable strategy is to promote the notion of federal arrangements that permit the self-government of communities. That strategy has its difficulties. It is opposed both to social justice, which requires comprehensive application of uniform principles in all aspects of social life, and to individual freedom, which as now understood requires separation of the individual from his communal setting. Nonetheless, it is an approach that could gather support from groups that otherwise differ quite radically, and it could be defended on the basis of multicultural neutrality.
Posted by Jim Kalb at May 24, 2002 12:11 PM | Send


The real problem of “the only workable strategy” you describe above is the fact that “community” is nowadays only a fiction. (Just like “international community”). It’s a word which signifies nothing real.

Posted by: Aristo on May 24, 2002 1:04 PM

Of course, the idea of “promoting federal arrangements that permit the self-government of communities” used to be a defining position of American conservatism. But even the pretence of claiming that position has been abandoned since the mid 1990s. At present, there is no mainstream conservative camp making a case for a restoration of constitutional federalism. But I agree that it should still be central to any traditionalist conservatism.

At the same time, if we are to be serious, we must be realistic about what such a platform would entail: nothing less than a dismantling of much of the structure of 20th century federal law and judicial decisions. It would require, for example, the rewriting of the 14th Amendment, which led to the Incorporation Doctrine, which has been the main instrument used to give federal courts control over state and local matters and prevent states and localities from enforcing their own standards. But if you were to raise such issues with today’s movement conservatives, they’d look at you at though you were speaking Urdu. They’ve all signed on to Bush’s big government conservatism.

In the ’90s when prominent conservatives and neoconservatives would issue some lip service about the need to return to the “smaller government of the founders,” I would sometimes write to them and point out the specific, radical changes in our current order that smaller government would require. Clearly, they did not want such radical changes. “Smaller government” was just a cheap slogan to them. In recent years, they have dropped the slogan, and become open proponents of big government conservatism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 24, 2002 1:54 PM

“Community” must signify something real, otherwise human society, which necessarily relies on systems of loyalty and readiness to sacrifice one’s own interest, couldn’t exist.

It’s often used in a manipulative or fraudulent manner, as in “international community.” All the example shows though is that it exists more in some settings than in others, more in the particular, local and non-rationalized aspects of social life than in transnational bureaucracies or world markets.

Which is one reason the proposal of federalism can hope to get support from a variety of people - it would give institutional protection and support to the aspects of society that make community possible and thus respond to a need that the rhetoric of community shows is quite widely felt.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on May 24, 2002 3:22 PM
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