What’s wrong with moderate anti-feminism

One of the keys to understanding modern conservatism is that each of its varieties is only conservative in part. That is, each “conservatism” upholds some discreet set of social, natural, or transcendent values which it tries to protect from liberal reconstruction, while, in most other respects, it continues to accept the liberal world view and the liberal agenda. What distinguishes the varieties of conservatism from each other is the particular intrinsic values that each of them upholds.

An interesting example of such liberal conservatism is the moderate anti-feminism of Christina Hoff Sommers. Throughout her many articles and public appearances, Sommers’ theme is always the same. Equity feminism, which seeks the removal of arbitrary discriminations and restrictions on women’s opportunities, has represented a positive and extremely successful development in American life. But gender feminism, which sees all societies (including even our current feminist society) as ruled by male oppressors, is bad and harmful.

In short, Miss Sommers is an individual-rights liberal who is conservative in the sense that she believes there are natural differences between the sexes that society should not deny or suppress through egalitarian legislation. What could be wrong with this vision?

The answer starts to become apparent in an article Sommers wrote last summer at Front Page Magazine, “U.N. Feminist Threat.” In this piece she criticizes the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which feminists and liberals are trying once again to get the U.S. Congress to ratify.

Sommers wants to eliminate some types of discrimination, because she feels that some differences between the sexes are not real or valid, and therefore discrimination based on such unreal differences ought to be forbidden. At the same time, she opposes the elimination of other types of discrimination, because she believes the differences in those cases (and the resulting differences of outcome) are valid.

Sommers’s political vision could be summed up as one of complete individual freedom for women to choose their path in life, but with no guaranteed result. In those areas where differences are false and discrimination is illegitimate, women will do well when the discrimination is eliminated. In other areas they will not do well, whether discrimination is eliminated or not.

However, there are contradictions in her scheme, particularly when it comes to the matter of sex stereotypes. Sommers opposes Article 5 of CEDAW which calls on all governments to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of … all … practices which are based on … stereotyped roles for men and women.” She asks: “What exactly do these provisions entail? Of course, some gender stereotypes are destructive and prejudicial and we must call disparaging attention to them. But, many male/female stereotypes (what the French call la difference) are descriptively true.”

She continues:

Consider, for example, how hard-liners could deploy Article 10 of the Treaty: It calls for the “elimination of any stereotyped concepts of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education … in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programs.”

Sommers seems to be saying that school books ought to have at least some sex role stereotypes. But the problem is, who’s going to decide what those sex role stereotypes should be? Isn’t it her position that it’s purely the process of unobstructed free choice and experimentation, i.e., the market, that determines what areas women succeed in or do not succeed in? Yet her opposition to anti-stereotype legislation implies that stereotypes ought to be allowed, which further seems to imply that society already knows what the sex differences are that it wants to symbolize and promote.

What, then, is the principled basis of Sommers’s opposition to CEDAW? She offers a variety of arguments. CEDAW is wrong to demand the elimination of all discrimination in every field. It is wrong because science has shown us that women and men are different and that there will be different outcomes. Thus, in Sommers’s view (as in CEDAW’s), Fire Departments could not formally exclude women, they must allow them to apply for jobs; but if no women pass the tests, that would not be discrimination and society must accept the unequal result (which a CEDAW regime would not accept). All this is entirely logical and reasonable of Sommers. Similarly, she says that the market, not a demand for “gender equal remuneration,” should determine how much people are paid.

These are good, essentialist arguments, rooted in natural differences. Why, then, do I find myself strangely unsatisfied by them? What is missing here?

What is missing is that Sommers only opposes anti-discrimination laws that would identify the existence of discrimination based on disparate results, i.e., discrimination based on results of the free operation of individuals acting in the market. What is missing is any acknowledgement or defense of prior, customary discrimination, namely the institutionalization of natural and traditional sex-role stereotypes in society. Sommers’s logic drives her to prohibit those things. How, then, can she criticize CEDAW for prohibiting them? Any differential role of the sexes according to her could only be properly discovered in the form of a net, Adam-Smithean result of a vast number of individual choices by women, which in turn are (to a certain extent) determined by underlying biological differences that will also determine which choices will be more successful, market-wise, than others. However, and this is the key point, society could never positively favor those differential outcomes.

What it all comes down to is that Sommers has no principled basis on which to oppose anti-discrimination-as-stereotyping laws. She only has a principled basis for opposing anti-discrimination-as-disparate-impact laws. She proposes an individual-rights liberalism modified by acceptance of natural human differences, while (in the manner of a pure individual-rights liberal) she denies any larger social, moral, and natural wholes, including sex roles, by which human life could be organized.

This analysis helps mark a dividing line between liberalism and conservatism. Insofar as she is a conservative, Sommers acknowledges the existence of natural human diffences that matter. If, for example, the market resulted in most women being homemakers and most men being bread winners, that would be fine with her, at least in theory. But, insofar as she is a liberal, she will let such natural sex differences be recognized only as the random result of the invisible hand of the market. She would not want society formally to uphold sex distinctions that derive their truth from nature or religion or commonly recognized human experience. She could not support socially sanctioned sex role stereotypes, such as schoolbooks that feature women as homemakers and men as soldiers and scientists. Any traditional roles could only emerge from the spontaneous choice of individuals, with no public sanction or formal cultural expression.

Another problem with Sommers’s view is that the belief in pure individual rights inevitably tends, in practice if not in theory, toward quotas and group rights. This is because as soon as a naturally male-oriented institution such as a police department or fire department says, “We don’t discriminate, we’re going to let everyone apply,” and when only the tiniest number of women get hired, people will start to become uncomfortable with that. Why are there so few women? What are we doing wrong? Are our employment tests biased? Are we not reaching out enough? Is our work environment too male-oriented? So “outreach” begins (which of course was the original, supposedly benign meaning of affirmative action), and the only way the success of such outreach can be measured is through the achievement of certain numbers, which will logically be based on proportional representation. Any number less than that will be seen as proof that we’re still living in an unequal society and must do more.

Thus complete freedom of individual choice in the absence of any socially accepted understanding of innate sex differences creates the expectation that the freedom of choice will lead to a broad sexual equality across the board. When it doesn’t, affirmative action starts. As I have argued previously at VFR, procedural liberals have substantive expectations, even if they are not explicit. When their substantive expectations are not met, the liberals start to make them explicit.

The moderate liberal commitment to proceduralism, non-discrimination, and equality of rights cannot ultimately resist the radical liberal agenda of group rights and mandated results. The only thing that can resist it is the traditionalist vision of society, which recognizes those natural and transcendent facts of life that liberals deride as “stereotypes.”
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 17, 2002 08:11 PM | Send


There are two basic principles in play in modern American politics. That is, there are two principles that define the basic categories, or factions, into which people fall. The first has to do with the classic American split between consolidationists and confederalists—that is, between those who wish to see most or all power lodged in the central government, and those who wish to see it lodged in the states. I call the former “leftists” and the latter “rightists.”

The second principle is of more modern vintage. It arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but only gained popular momentum in the last half of the twentieth. This is tne notion that there is (not) a natural law that all positive law must bow to. Before this time, the natural law was a given in American politics, and all our fundamental Constitutional Law is based on it. But many of our most serious struggles lately have involved the modern effort to deny it. Over time, those who affirm the existence of natural law and natural rights have come to be called “conservatives,” while those who deny them are called “liberals.”

It is the four possible combinations of these four principles (that is, the two principles and their contraries) that yield the basic categories of political organization in modern America, and since there are two principles in play instead of one, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a spectrum of opinion existing along a straight line. Rather, the fact is that the spectrum forms a two-dimensional figure: a circle, with each of the categories occupying a compass point thereon.

At the westernmost point (i.e. the left) we have the “liberal left.” These are people who believe that most or all power should be lodged in the central government, and deny that there exists a natural law that their positive law must conform to. We usually just call these people “liberals.”

Opposite them, at the easternmost point (i.e. the right) are the “conservative right.” These believe that power should be as dispersed and as local as possible. These affirm the existence of a natural law. This group is the modern version of the founding-era Antifederalists—the Jeffersonians. We tend to call these the “Old Right” or “true conservatives.”

At the northern point are the “conservative left”—those who champion a consolidated government, yet also believe in the natural law. These are the “neoconservatives,” who represent the old-time Federalist faction—the Hamiltonians—that descends from the founding.

Finally, at the southern point are the people who desire a weak central government, but at the same time deny the existence of the natural law—the “liberal right.” These are the Ayn Rand-style “libertarians” and the (erroneously named) “fiscal conservatives.” Like their opposite number, the neoconservatives, they share a principle in common with both the liberal left and the conservative right. (Note that many people who call themselves “libertarians” actually are not under this understanding. People like Joseph Sobran and Lew Rockwell are properly classed as Old Right.)

Given this schema, Christina Hoff Sommers would seem to belong either to the conservative right or conservative left, since she affirms the existence of nature and nature’s laws. (I would point out that it is meaningless, or at best confusing, to talk about “liberal conservatism,” as Mr. Auster is forced to, since these are generally taken to be contraries. In fact, this is precisely why I’ve bothered to give this account of things: because the confusion about political categories in America has grown so critical as to almost render coherent political discussion impossible). Without knowing Ms. Sommers’ views on government itself I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess she’s strongly in favor of using the power of the central government to enforce her regime across the entire breadth of the fifty states, which would put her solidly in the neoconservative camp.

Posted by: Jim Newland on December 17, 2002 2:04 PM

Mr. Newland’s effort to make sense of our politics is appreciated and I intend my comments as friendly.

The people whom we normally call neoconservatives, or at least too many of them, have abandoned what you call natural law. E.g., David Brooks, C. Caldwell, NR’s Ponnuru, Fareed Zakaria, etc. Some of us, who when looking to the Founding much prefer Hamilton to Jefferson, now have the impression that the paleoconservatives are the only people on the right who still believe in that natural law.

It’s not enough to talk about whether political power should be mainly in DC or in the state capitals. I’m more concerned with *what* government does than whether its done in Washington or in Illinois. If “big government” means administrative bureaucracies designed to maintain the nanny state, then let’s oppose big government. If government means a strong army, an efficient postal service, the courts, and a police force exercising traditional police powers, than I’m not anti-state.

Finally, although in the recent conservative wars my sympathies have been with the paleos rather than the neocons, I have little affinity with Jefferson or the antifederalists. In other words, I think your scheme, in places, isn’t entirely consistent with my (limited) experience of the contemporary, intellectual, conservative movement.


Posted by: William Wleklinski on December 17, 2002 4:04 PM

Mr. Wleklinski,

If you don’t like the names I put to the groups, then choose others more to your liking. I think you’re missing the point. The point is that the two *principles* I mentioned are the two that, as near as I can tell, our politics turn on. However, if you think I am wrong, please feel free to lay out the proper divisions in our politics carefully for me, as I’d like to know the truth. I don’t mean the “kinda, sorta” nonsense that passes for analysis among the uneducated masses these days, but specific definitions tied to specific terminology, as I’ve tried to do.

I don’t know why you deny belief in the natural law to neoconservatives. They all seem to be of the Harry Jaffa school of political science, which views the rights of man as belonging to him by nature, with those rights preceding and forming the very ground of government as per the teaching of John Locke. Government exists, the neocons aver, for the purpose of securing our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you think you have identified a neocon who denies this, then I’ll tell you that that person is not in fact a neocon but is rather a liberal. It is the liberal who thinks that government, and not God, precedes and is the source of the rights of man.

Lastly, you say you don’t care about *where* political power is centered, whether in Washington, DC, or in the state capitols. I guess if the question were actually that crude and simplistic, I wouldn’t care either, but it’s not. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient space or time here to explain to you the serious federal vs. state issues with which the Framers grappled and why they did so—nor, indeed, to explain to you why thousands upon thousands of Southern men sacrificed their lives in the (so-called) Civil War, which was a war fought over the very thing you seem to think so trivial a matter.

Posted by: Jim Newland on December 18, 2002 3:41 AM

One reason it’s hard to be conservative on more than a very few issues is the problem Mr. Auster has pointed to in the Trent Lott situation — if you’re in public life you’d better not differ from the accepted view unless you’re ready to articulate and defend a full-fledged position. A consequence is that you can’t be a true conservative unless you have a comprehensive articulate theory of everything. Otherwise you can only differ on this and that.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on December 18, 2002 7:22 AM

Jim you’re right about that, of course. In the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” the German composer van Beethoven mentioned how, as he put it, his advancing deafness at a young age had “forced him to become a philosopher.” Opposing leftism/liberalism forces one to become a philosopher at a young age (or at whatever age!) — either that, or shut up and keep it to yourself. (Hey, it’s a good brain work-out, if nothing else!) BUT … philosophizing is what élites are for — college professors, CEOs, the wealthy classes — WHERE ARE THEY??? (Rhetorical question, of course … we’ve already discussed that subject on VFR … before we repeat the discussion let me first run out and stock up on some Maalox, guys … )

Posted by: Unadorned on December 18, 2002 8:18 AM

Just two comments for Mr. Newland:

My point about the neocons abandoning natural law had to do, not with “rights” but with public morality. There was a time in this country when in most states abortion (of course) was a criminal offense, and there were statutes proscribing adultery, fornication, and homosexual sodomy, the last in some jurisdications a capital offense. That time is past. I think it fair to say that the neocons have accepted the cultural revolution of the last 40 years as something which has happened and is irreversible and no longer worth opposing. I think real conservatives still insist upon fighting these “culture wars”, and if the outlook is grim and it seems like a lost cause, so be it.

As to the locus of power (central government versus regional or local), obviously some state functions fall into the one category, others into the other. The nation state maintains the army and the post office. (It also operates the FBI.) The state or locality is expected to provide police and fire services. Beyond these distinctions, you’re quite right, I don’t much care about states’ rights, etc. But I don’t pretend that my conservatism is particularly American. If I had been born a British subject or an Austrian, for example, I would hope that my social philosophy would be much the same.


Posted by: William Wleklinski on December 18, 2002 10:04 AM

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Wleklinski. Mr. Newland’s schema is probably valid in describing the spectrum of mainstream American political postures, all of which are either liberal or deeply corrupted by liberalism. There is no place for my own views in the schema, despite the fact that (as an American) America is the primary object of my public secular loyalty. I don’t expect everyone to conform their models to me of course, but Mr. Newman should expect to see quite a number of perspectives that do not fit his schema in a place like VFR.

To wit: Mr Newland’s schema has a structural axis and a moral axis, but both quite specific: (1) central-distributed and (2) natural-law-to-natural-rights or not.

My own criteria and understandings do not fit happily along Mr. Newland’s lines and their subtext. For example a kingdom or even a medieval papacy often was far less centralized than the current arrangement in America, and in any case categorical opposition to democracy as a formal reflection of liberal equality is much more important to me structurally. On the moral front I think that “natural rights” do attempt to point to the ontic truth of what can be called natural law but that the formulation as “rights” intrinsically distorts the truth.

Again, though, in fairness to Mr. Newland no schema can be expected to take in every kook and nutcase. The point though is that in order to reject liberalism categorically one really has to be a sort of kook or nutcase, so lots of exceptions are bound to be found among the politically incorrect right who reject the pervasive liberal order. Mr. Newland’s schema is really a schema that describes some of the internal structure of the liberal order, not actual opposition to it.

Posted by: Matt on December 18, 2002 10:38 AM

An alternative to Mr. Kalb’s “Articulate Theory of Everything” requirement is to formulate an articulate enough understanding of liberalism to be able to show how it refutes itself in any context. That doesn’t help much in the public operating vocations because of the kook-and-nutcase factor, and because it is difficult to have an operating role in institutions the basic premeses of which one rejects; but it is something, and it doesn’t require a theory of everything.

Posted by: Matt on December 18, 2002 12:11 PM

“Opposing leftism/liberalism forces one to become a philosopher.”

I think this is true. And it’s true because the reigning liberalism with all its variations (including mainstream conservatism) is a fully articulated, functioning ideology. Not that it’s coherent (we know that it’s not), but that it has the entire intellectual infrastructure, including established assumptions slogans, methods of dealing with opposition, and so on, of a ruling world view. The existing varieties of conservatism, as I’ve said elsewhere, are all incomplete fragments—conservative in one or another aspect, but liberal in others. So there is no fully articulated conservative opposition to liberalism. It needs to be created. And that’s why anyone who wants to oppose liberalism consistently needs to become something of a philosopher. That’s quite a demand, but I don’t see any way around it.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 18, 2002 12:39 PM

“I don’t much care about states’ rights…”

To risk stating the obvious, decentralized government should generally be preferable to the centralized kind for the following reasons. (1) Local governments, being in more intense competition with one another, are inherently more limited in their powers (particularly when their citizens have complete freedom of movement within a larger polity). This is why at the core of modern statist liberalism there is a desire for a world state which would face no such competition and whose power would therefore be potentially unlimited. The U.S. federal government is not a world state but in some ways it isn’t that far off. (2) The maintenance of distinct local societies requires the right of such societies to have their own formal laws, in accordance with their own customs, which is not possible in a highly centralized polity. Even if such customs have died out, local legal autonomy is presumably necessary if there is to be any hope of new ones evolving. Decentralization is crucial to any reconciliation of traditional “social” conservatism with modern pluralism. Surely these issues should be at the heart of the conservative political program.

Posted by: Ian Hare on December 19, 2002 1:15 PM

More from the “Forced by the Left to Give Your Brain a Work-out” dept:

“One reason it’s hard to be conservative on more than a very few issues is the problem Mr. Auster has pointed to in the Trent Lott situation — if you’re in public life you’d better not differ from the accepted view unless you’re ready to articulate and defend a full-fledged position.” — Jim Kalb

Here’s a passage from a 13-yr-old article by Cornell professor of astronomy Thomas Gold (gleaned from today’s edition of LewRockwell.com) which seems to shed light on why one almost — perhaps not “almost,” but “literally” — has to be a philosopher before one can oppose liberalism in today’s society (Prof. Gold is not talking about liberals, but what he says seems nevertheless to apply to that situation as well):

“Staying with the herd to many people also has an advantage that they would not run the risk of exposing their ignorance. If one departs from the herd, then one will be asked, one will be charged to explain why one has departed from the herd. One has to be able to offer the detailed justifications, and one’s understanding of the subject will be criticized. If one stays with the herd, then mostly there is no such charge. “Yes, I believe that because doesn’t everybody else believe that?” That is enough justification. It isn’t to me, but it is to very many other people. The sheep in the interior of the herd are well protected from the bite in the ankle by the sheep dog. …

” … Now we understand the mathematical consequence of taking a shallow curve and multiplying it by itself a large number of times. What happens? In the mathematical limit it becomes a delta function at the value of the initial peak. What does that mean? If you go for long enough, you will have created the appearance of unanimity. It will look as if you have solved the problem because all agree, and of course you have got absolutely nothing. If no new fact has come to light and the subject has gone on for long enough, - this is what happens. And it does happen! I am presenting it in its clearest form, and it is by no means a joke. If many years go by in a field in which no significant new facts come to light, the field sharpens up the opinions and gives the appearance that the problem is solved.”


Posted by: Unadorned on December 21, 2002 10:19 AM

Arrow’s Theorem demonstrates that under fairly run of the mill circumstances it is literally impossible for democracy to achieve a socially positive outcome. See _Impossibility_ by Barrow, sorry I don’t have chapter and verse handy.

Posted by: Matt on December 21, 2002 12:44 PM

Matt, it seems to me that voting is a powerful weapon that traditionalists can use in a system based on voting even if the ultimate aim of some traditionalists is an undemocratic system.

If you have the time, what kind of system do you think is desirable and possible?

Is Mr. Barrow’s theory new? Is his theory respected? I have located the book at my library but have not yet placed a hold on it.

Posted by: P Murgos on December 21, 2002 3:24 PM

“Is his theory respected?”

What an odd question. When I read it, I immediately thought, “By whom?”

Posted by: Charlie on December 21, 2002 3:37 PM

Mr. Murgos:

Barrow wrote a popularization of mathematical concepts of impossibility (not a political book at all — I have no idea what Barrows’s politics may be). Arrow’s Theorem is not a theory, it is a proven mathematical theorem. Barrow’s book does a good job laying out, in layman’s terms, the preconditions that are required in order for Arrow’s Theorem to apply; they are general enough to explain the tendency of democracy toward degeneracy, but with enough slop to provide for temporary local exceptions (that last sentence is my own opinion not necessarily Barrow’s).

On the other topic, I am of the opinion that the idea that democratic elections can be used to advance traditionalism is simply wrong. Democratic elections are a sacrament that represent formal equality, and I am with the postmoderns in thinking that formal equality cannot be separated in a meaningful way from substantive equality (sort of: po-mos don’t really believe in the substantive).

Democratic elections are:

1) A lie, because they create the false impression that everyone _actually has_ equal political power;

2) A lie, because they create the false impression that everyone _should_ have equal political power;

3) A lie, because it is impossible _in principle_ for democracy to achieve a socially positive outcome over time;

4) A lie, because they are a tool for getting widespread assent to liberal governance based on previous lies;

5) A lie, because they create the false impression that illiberal forces can make a difference by voting democratically and personally validating and consenting to the equal right to vote, thus “corrupting the enemy”;

6) A lie, because they create the impression that the good can be (or for practical purposes should be) defined by consensus;

7) A lie, because they create the impression that the true can be (or for practical purposes should be) defined by consensus;

8) A lie, because they create the impression that the beautiful can be (or for practical purposes should be) defined by a consensus;

9) A lie, because they create the impression that politics should be based fundamentally in practical considerations of everyday life (which translates to the actual desires of actual people) rather than in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful;

10) A lie, because they create the impression that the moral good can be found in formal arrangements;

I could go on. Democracy is the formal embodiment of the liberal principle of political equality. The equal right to vote is among the most fundamental of liberal equal “rights”. Liberalism may sometimes whisper in your ear that it can help you achieve the True, the Good, and the Beautiful; but it is all a Lie.

As to what makes sense structurally in governance, it certainly makes sense to have devolved authority (i.e. local aristocracy) as well as some authoritative principles of unity (e.g. monarchy). Of course in actual practice every polity has some degree of those things; liberal polities like ours equivocate between denying that they have such features and concluding that comprehensive measures are necessary to eradicate such features. Absolutes such as dictatorship and democracy should be avoided (and indeed in the end amount to the same thing).

All that said, though, the formal arrangements are not primary and indeed part of the liberal error is to treat formal arrangements as primary (witness the fact that democracy and virtue are practically synonyms to a modern). Philosophy/theology precede structure; certain structures are manifested by and reinforce philosophy/theology, but p/t come first.

Posted by: Matt on December 24, 2002 12:57 PM

Thanks Matt for taking so much time during such a busy season. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Posted by: P Murgos on December 24, 2002 2:30 PM

Matt wrote,

“Democratic elections are:

” … 2) A lie, because they create the false impression that everyone _should_ have equal political power;

“3) A lie, because it is impossible _in principle_ for democracy to achieve a socially positive outcome over time;

” … 6) A lie, because they create the impression that the good can be (or for practical purposes should be) defined by consensus; … “


A few questions and comments:

2) Should we re-institute a property requirement for suffrage, or perhaps count the votes of the propertyless as some fraction of those of the propertied — three-fourths, for example? To keep the utterly ignorant from casting votes that would equal the those of the at least minimally-informed, should we require a passing grade on a little basic-level quiz given at the polling place, made up of, let’s say, five or six questions or so, such as “Who is the current U.S. Vice-President?,” “Who was George Washington?,” “What were two of the countries the United States fought against in World War II?,” and “In what century was the Lincoln Administration”? Should women’s right to vote be rescinded? Women have this habit of voting for people like members of the Kennedy family or Bill and Hillary, often without possessing the slightest idea of what’s going on in the country or the world. Women in Switzerland, one of the world’s most beautiful and successful countries, first got the right to vote in 1972 and I’m expecting their vote to have put that country on the path toward total ruination some time within the next fifteen years or so (making a generation-and-a-half since they got the vote, roughly the time that elapsed in this country from the granting of the vote to them, to passage of the 1965 Ted-Kennedy/Emanuel-Celler Immigration Holocaust bill).

3) There does seem to be something very wrong with democracy, some mortal flaw, which will not permit a democratic country to survive very long (ESPECIALLY once women are granted the right to vote). Ancient Egypt, surely no democracy, survived intact two-and-a-half thousand years without a hitch, before Alexander the Great achieved hegemony over it, whereas no democracy seems to have made it more than a few centuries before succumbing. Can democracy be tinkered with, to produce a better system, without having to consider such — to me, anyway — disgusting alternatives as monarchy or oligarchy? Would a more indirect Hamiltonian system, having more layers interposed between popular elections and actual governance, work to the satisfaction of the greatest number?

6) Things like Bills of Rights get inserted into Constitutions so that fundamental “goods,” such as each of the rights enumerated in our own Bill of Rights, don’t have to be re-debated, re-hashed-out, and re-decided over again every single generation, or even every single election (always running the risk, furthermore, that they’ll be rejected next time around, or decided differently, resulting in some debased version of the original). Might the solution to Matt’s objection #6 be to create a category of Constitutional rules that can’t be changed by any parliamentary procedure — that is, which are fixed, permanent, and not changeable by means of “the Elastic Clause” or in any other way short of armed rebellion and overthrow of the entire system? For example, “There shall be no federal income tax or equivalent thereof. This shall not be subject to change.” (Alternatives to an income tax at the federal level, of course, include a national sales tax and other perfectly good means of collecting needed revenue at the federal level.)

Of course, the ultimate guarantor of our rights and of the quality of our national life is the people themselves, not any written rules, since as we’ve seen lately, dishonest Courts, including a dishonest Supreme Court, can simply pretend not to understand the language in which the rules of 1781 were written — so, what good would writing down more rules do? And the worst part is, this same corrupt government, partly out fear that the ethno-culturally traditional people of the U.S. would be more likely than some docile foreign peasants to put a stop to their shenanigans, have undertaken to replace that traditional population with — guess what? — docile foreign peasants, so that they will have free rein to work their mischief without fear of opposition.

Posted by: Unadorned on December 26, 2002 12:29 PM

Unadorned’s suggestions are all reasonable responses, but I don’t think that attempting to fix goods in a discursive instrument like a Constitution works. Unadorned says as much, but he seems to see the limitation as a problem of being immune from abuse rather than as something more fundamental. The postmoderns are not wrong about the limitations and plasticity of text-in-itself; they are just wrong about the peculiar Wittgensteinian notion that text and “all that matters” correspond.

Posted by: Matt on December 26, 2002 12:46 PM

Also, I suppose I should point out that even if we were going to discuss a “permanent” discursive political embodiment of the good we are probably talking about the wrong sorts of things. For example I see no fundamental moral problem with income taxes, or any taxes that are based on cash transactions that take place under the protection of the Crown. It seems to me that taxes on noncash nontransactions are where moral problems arise, e.g. property tax, taxes on unrealized illiquid gains, etc. A tax on a non-cash non-transaction just amounts to a taking of property, and unless it is clear that the Crown already owns the property the Crown shouldn’t be taking it. But the overall point is that these are probably not the primary sorts of moral questions that we should be concerned about settling permanently anyway, whether our method of settlement is discursive (which I don’t think works) or some other method.

Posted by: Matt on December 26, 2002 3:23 PM

Re restrictions on the franchise:

I believe that it is of fundamental importance to distinguish the right to vote for the *executive* from that to vote on *legislative* measures or for legislative representatives. Limiting the executive franchise to the more politically competent would result in a more competent and respected executive government. On the other hand, under the contemporary unlimited kind of government, limiting the legislative franchise would remove, for those groups that were excluded, the only means of self-defence against the tyranny of the enfranchised. If no votes for women, then no women’s rights (Bertrand de Jouvenel).

Limited voting rights in the executive branch would be basically in accord with traditional practice. Traditionally (in the “medieval organic monarchies”) of course there were *no* votes for the hereditary executive, yet at the same time the lower chamber of Parliament had a broad electoral base. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that medieval Norway even had representation for the ordinary peasants, for example.

Posted by: Ian Hare on December 27, 2002 2:03 PM

I like Mr. Hare’s distinction between different degrees of voting rights for different parts and levels of the government. Early America had such a system. Each state and locality had its own voting laws. For electing the lower house of the state legislature, there would be a broad franchise, for voting for governor of a state or for presidential electors, there would be a more restrictive franchise, usually based on property ownership. This makes sense, and reflects the actual constitution of society.

Liberalism as a comprehensive system delegitimizes such views. All levels of government, all institutions, must be subjected to the same uniform, universalist criterion.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 27, 2002 2:54 PM
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