Traditionalism — what and why?

Here’s an initial sketch of a discussion of traditionalist conservatism that attempts to develop it out of a general analysis of social organization. I would be very grateful for any comments.
Understanding Conservatism and Tradition [8th state]

To understand conservatism we must understand how conservatives differ from leftists and libertarians.

Basic oppositions in politics usually have to do with fundamental issues of social organization. Will king or parliament be supreme? Pope or emperor? Local community, nation, or transnational bureaucracy? Such issues are as important for us now as they were for the Cavaliers and Roundheads. So a simple explanation for the big divisions in political thought today is that they have to do with differing ideas of how society should be organized. Each way of running things creates a party that favors it.

The main ways of organizing society today are bureaucracy, markets and tradition. They are very different from each other. Bureaucracy creates administrative structures that put things in order by deciding directly how they will be. Markets let order emerge out of men’s dealings with each other under a regime of private property and free contract. The third possibility, tradition, accepts the arrangements that grow out of the attitudes, practices and beliefs that become authoritative over time in the life of a community. (Popular rule is also a way of deciding how things should be organized, but its effect is usually to decide which combination of the three ways mentioned should run things day to day.)

The three organizational principles don’t exclude each other, and any modern society has to draw on all of them. Bureaucracy can’t be avoided, attempts to do away with markets have failed catastrophically, and neither bureaucracy nor markets can exist without traditions that support and guide them. Indeed, bureaucracy and markets can themselves become traditions. Nonetheless, the three principles often collide. In family life, for example, traditional arrangements are often at odds with the principles of free contract or the welfare state. When such conflicts arise, one principle must be chosen over the others, and the one habitually put first determines political orientation.

So a basic distinction among leftists, libertarians and conservatives today is that leftists are the party of bureaucracy, libertarians of markets, and conservatives of tradition. The point is obvious in the case of libertarians, and almost equally so in the case of conservatives. While conservatives don’t always say that tradition is their standard, attachment to heritage is what distinguishes them from others. Leftists are often reluctant to admit their attachment to bureaucracy, because it’s a dirty word and because of their connections to anti-authoritarian movements, but their policies and programs put the matter beyond doubt. What is more basic to the leftist program today than PC, affirmative action and economic redistribution, and who can imagine those things without all-pervasive bureaucracy?

The three tendencies have fared very differently in the marketplace of ideas. One reason is that clear and simple views that seem to answer everything do better than complicated views that leave a lot obscure. As a result, the party of bureaucracy — the leftists — have usually found the going easiest. Bureaucracy is the obvious way to apply expert knowledge to social life and solve all possible problems. It fits easily into the technological outlook dominant today, so much so that those who favor it can’t believe that any informed and well-meaning person could disagree with them. In addition, leftists heavily influence the schools and major media, so leftist attitudes, beliefs and authorities get widely propagated.

However, what sells is not always what’s true. Experience and economic theory both demonstrate that central planning and control can’t do what people expect of them. Libertarians and modern “classical liberals” have been able to debunk the claims of bureaucrats by demonstrating the necessity of markets for freedom, prosperity and other good things, sometimes dressing up their demonstrations with romantic images of opportunity, choice and economic creativity. While such people aren’t as numerous as their opponents, they’ve established an intellectual presence and influence beyond their numbers. Their advantages have been the clarity, force and refinement of their arguments, and the obvious failures of bureaucratic management.

Conservatives have had a more difficult time of it, because they are concerned with things that are harder to present clearly than social engineering or markets. Leftists and libertarians attempt to grasp society as a whole by looking at it so to speak from without. Leftists want to establish social policies that promote equality, prosperity, security, and the like. Libertarians favor the arrangements that arise when individuals freely pursue their own goals through exchange. Both have a clear institutional point of view and set of standards from which to view society and argue their positions. Given any social practice they can say where it fits in and what standards should govern it by referring to their master principle. Those qualities give them an enormous advantage in debate.

Conservatives in contrast look at life in society from within. They are concerned with social practices more from the point of view of the practices themselves than from a unifying external perspective. Since they accept social practices on their own terms they find it natural for each major aspect of life to run on its own principles while recognizing and accommodating other spheres of activity. Conservatives therefore let family life, religion and politics be family life, religion and politics, each with its own intrinsic value and scope of action, rather than treating them all as instruments of some master principle like efficiency, social welfare, or the liberation of the individual. That is the reason, for example, that conservatives neither mistake religion for politics nor exclude it rigidly from public life.

The rejection of any simple principle for measuring everything saves conservatism from the radical elitism implicit in judging social institutions from above, and makes civic participation rather than theoretical correctness the basis of a good society. It is also the reason conservatives tend to accept inherited practices as they are, in accordance with their internal standards, rather than attempt to reform them in accordance with some external principle of universal applicability. They don’t feel obliged, for example, to make all institutions democratic.

That lack of universal answers is unhelpful in debate. Conservatives are usually better at criticizing their opponents, usually on the grounds that their proposals are self-defeating and based on a false understanding of human life, than arguing a positive case. The basic problem they face, apart for the lack of a simple theory to explain everything, is that the habit of accepting tradition seems odd to people today. Why should we accept what’s passed down? Most people today find it more rational to experiment, talk to an expert, or look things up on the Internet than simply do what’s been done before. After all, we come later, so presumably we know more.

Conservatives used to be able to score points by appealing to continuity, loyalty and settled facts, but no longer. Continuity isn’t a good argument when your opponent promises radical improvements, and loyalty is no argument at all when the past has been debunked and there’s an unbreakable taboo against suggesting your opponent is disloyal. Besides, the attack on tradition is itself a settled fact, and it seems radical to oppose it. So conservatives today can’t just say “this is how we do it and things haven’t been going so badly.” Like everyone else they have to be forward-looking and give reasons for their views.

Indeed, to the extent the traditions of modernity have become anti-traditional conservatives must become in a sense radical. Leftists who call conservatives “extremist” do so because they think they can make the accusation colorable. So conservatives can’t stand pat. They must argue against the particular traditions of modernity in favor of the principle of tradition, and in favor of the older and more comprehensive standards and traditions that continue to sustain human life by making such things as family life and ordinary everyday honesty possible.

So what can be said in favor of the principle of tradition, of living with social practices as they are and working with them in the light of experience and tradition, in opposition to the modern practice of remodeling society on abstract standards of efficiency and equality? One answer is that markets and bureaucracies need tradition. To work at all well they require a whole complex of habits, attitudes and beliefs supported by things like family arrangements, religious commitments, and standards of respectable conduct. Such things do not themselves operate on market or bureaucratic principles. They grow up informally and in ways that can’t be planned or controlled, through the growth of settled habits and attitudes among people who live together and deal with each other for a long time. They are thus essentially traditional.

That answer suggests a kind of minimalist conservatism often found among chastened leftists and libertarians who have read Oakeshott or Hayek. Leftist or liberal goals won’t be achieved unless people have the understandings and habits — honesty, diligence, restraint, public spirit — that make it possible for bureaucracies, markets and institutions of self-government to work properly. Those understandings and habits can’t be counted on unless they are part of a stable and authoritative tradition by which people live. So grown-up leftists and libertarians must favor whatever is needed to have a generally-accepted tradition that fosters such things.

But what is it that’s needed? It is likely to be more than minimalist conservatives expect. An analogy to socialism and free markets may be helpful. When the socialists became convinced that markets were after all necessary they tried to invent a “social market” consistent with socialist ideals. It turned out to be impossible. If the principle of central control comes first, the market suffers severely. If the principle of contract sets the tone, socialism must be given up. While bureaucracy may be useful for particular goals, the failure of attempts to save socialism indicates that in a modern economy the market must take the overall lead. From an intellectual standpoint, at any rate, libertarianism has won its argument with the left.

A similar result seems certain in the case of an attempt to create a traditionalism that is a subordinate part of a fundamentally leftist or libertarian order. Leftism and libertarianism emphasize equality and satisfaction of individual goals within an orderly framework that facilitates such things. However, to accept tradition is to accept a great deal on trust, and so requires loyalty to something larger than the individual that can’t be fully rationalized. That loyalty is not likely to last when subordinated to equality and self-interest. Things like patriotism and love of family are not matters of calculation or personal advantage. If genuine self-sacrifice is needed, as in wartime, can the need for an orderly framework to advance self-interest and promote equality be enough to motivate it? Can that need be enough to motivate even the public honesty and stable family life indispensable for a tolerable society?

It seems not. Tradition — the habit of loyalty toward one’s society and its ways — is necessary to establish the overall order within which social institutions like markets and bureaucracies can function. It follows that it cannot be justified by reference to market or bureaucratic considerations, which are of necessity subordinate, but must be viewed as authoritative in its own right. Since society cannot be rationalized on clear simple principles, evolved social practices must be accepted to a large extent on their own terms.

But what personal reason do any of us have to treat tradition as authoritative? Is it only that we should do so as members of society because otherwise social order will be impossible? Or does tradition have internal qualities that make it reasonable to recognize its authority? And what about bad traditions? Surely loyalty shouldn’t be blind!

The answer is found in the nature of human life. To accept tradition is to accept life on the whole as we find it. The alternative is to construct some new form of life based on supposed superior knowledge. However, life is too complex, subtle and all-embracing to be reconstructed in more than marginal ways. One might be able to invent a better mousetrap starting from scratch, or program a VCR simply by reading what the expert who wrote the manual has to say. More complicated things that can’t be analyzed so clearly require acceptance of a particular culture and tradition. We learn such things by imitation, by doing, and by participation in the traditions that define them. Without tradition complex human activities could not exist at all. We can’t engage in human speech, for example, without accepting and doing those things that constitute a particular language and so obediently accepting a particular tradition.

In the case of very high-order activities, like politics, religion and the conduct of life generally, individual inventiveness and expertise that is not integrated with the practice of the activity itself become wholly subsidiary. The statesman and saint are not those who have studied religions and political systems and become experts or those who claim to have mastered those things so they can do with them what they want. They are those who live the life of religion and of politics as they exist in a particular tradition supremely well. How could it be otherwise, when such activities are so complex and subtle that no one could hope to state all their principles, and so all-embracing that an external perspective is impossible? The so-called innovations of great men only fulfill what was there already. Washington and Lincoln acted out of loyalty to their country and wanted to maintain something good it had long possessed. Christ based his teaching on the Law and Prophets and aimed only to fulfill them. How do such men compare with men like Robespierre, Lenin and Hitler who rejected and destroyed societies they considered rotten in the name of a radical new order of their own invention?

Life depends on loyalty. To live as a human being is to accept and follow tradition. Without participation in the traditions that constitute our social world of shared habits, attitudes, beliefs and so on we would be like children fostered by wolves — dumb animals with no conception of who we are, and no goals other than immediate gratification of crude instinct. It is only because we take part in that world that we know who we are and what we want. To reject the authority of tradition is to leave that world and so become less than human.

As for bad traditions, we know they are bad through other traditions. Ultimate standards of goodness, beauty and truth are too basic to isolate and study from outside. Since our relationship to them is part of what makes us what we are, they are beyond the reach of the ideals of neutrality and impartial expertise that have led moderns to try to base everything on economics, social science and formal abstractions like equality. Without involvement in forms of life that embody ultimate standards, we can’t know them.

The forms of life that embody the good, beautiful and true can’t be our private creation. Our understanding of ultimate things inevitably reflects our experience and commitments. If the understanding is merely personal that is all it can reflect. To attain a tolerable degree of objectivity and reliability our ultimate standards must draw on the experience and commitments of others, and be integrated with an enduring way of life capable of accumulating lessons and reflecting them in its practices. In short, they must be part of a comprehensive tradition of life. Adherence to tradition is necessary to our ability to make sense of things by reference to ultimate standards on which reliance is justified. Loyalty to tradition is therefore — paradoxically — necessary to the reform of tradition.

The reliability of tradition enables us to view it as anchored in realities it does not exhaust. Just as bureaucracy must respect markets and markets tradition, we must understand tradition as oriented toward something beyond itself that is capable of guiding our actions because it is not a creation of our own will. It is from that orientation toward something transcendent that tradition draws its final authority. In the end, human society, as conservatives recognize, is always in some way religious. Human life can’t be carried on in a world that does not make sense in some reliable way, and the world makes sense to us through traditions that point to something beyond themselves. It follows that tradition is the natural state of man, and at bottom he can never give it up.

But what — someone might ask — is the point of talking about tradition if we are always traditional in some sense, and if tradition explains even the modification and abandonment of tradition? The answer is that today the necessity of accepting tradition is in effect denied, and the denial distorts all our thought and action. The fight for tradition is not a matter of creating it or putting it on life support but of opposing the things that disrupt it, strengthening the things that support it, and providing ways for it to defend itself so it can grow back when it has been weakened. It is facilitating the natural functioning of human society.

The modern emphasis is too much on technology, on breaking things down to their simplest parts and reconstructing them in accordance with the human will. The problem with applying that approach to human life as a whole is that we can only make sense of our actions by reference to standards and realities we don’t create. The direct application of will to social reality through bureaucracy must accept the setting created by the unplanned aggregation of individual wills through the market, and the latter must in turn accept a larger setting, the human world created by the aggregation of human perceptions, experiences and habits through tradition.

Modern political life rebels at such necessities. As an example, “affirmative action” demands the forcible eradication of the practical consequences of traditionally-recognized distinctions among human beings. The only differences allowed to matter are those based on economic function or bureaucratically-determined status. Age, sex, religion, family ties and culture are to be made irrelevant to social status and life chances no matter what the social, moral or economic cost. That demand is based on the view that particularities such as culture — the habits, attitudes, assumed standards, presumptions, ties, loyalties and collective memories one acquires by growing up in a particular setting — shouldn’t matter at all, and if they do matter they should be forced as a practical matter not to matter.

Such a demand involves a denial of the legitimacy of tradition as such. It asserts that the world must be what we force it to be, not what it turns out to be as a result of the ways of life people develop. “Celebrating cultural diversity” is really celebrating the practical abolition of culture and its replacement by bureaucratic uniformity. All cultures are to be equal, which means they are all to be made irrelevant to everything that matters except as bureaucratic classifications intended to counteract the real effects of cultural differences.

Such efforts and the attitudes behind them are ignorant and anti-human, and their consequences are displayed in the degraded state of American culture and politics. Abolishing the significance of culture is not liberating, it makes men brutish and is inconsistent with a tolerable society. A renewed appreciation of the role of tradition and limits of abstract principle is required so that bureaucracy, markets, politics and all other spheres of activity can take their place in a stable overall way of life that accepts the whole of human reality. It is for that renewed appreciation that conservatism today must stand.

Posted by Jim Kalb at January 21, 2003 11:27 AM | Send

“[Conservatives] must argue from the principle of tradition, and from older and more comprehensive traditions, against specific traditions of modernity.”

Does this imply extracting principles from the older traditions and using these to combat modernity, or attempting to reconstruct in detail the older traditions—on the basis of historical documents or old novels, or perhaps the memories of the very old—after they have apparently disappeared? (For example, might a separatist traditionalist community begin by adopting some specific earlier body of written legislation and case law in an unchanged form, despite the clearly anachronistic character much of this law would have?) Or does one merely, as has typically been the case with English-speaking conservatives, fight a rearguard action, attempting to preserve the dwindling body of tradition for as long as possible?

Posted by: Ian Hare on January 21, 2003 5:58 PM

I mentioned two things:

1. Opposition to the traditions of modernity — the practices, attitudes etc. that have grown up to support the practice of replacing established habits, beliefs and attitudes by rational constructions. That is “argu[ing] from the principle of tradition … against specific traditions of modernity.” A basic argument is that those specific traditions are self-defeating and based on a false understanding of human life.

2. Articulation, defense and support of existing habits, beliefs and attitudes that support the health of tradition. If such things didn’t exist and permeate life society would vanish. Examples would include the practices, ideals etc. that still make family life and ordinary everyday honesty and loyalty possible and even widespread, recognition of the good, beautiful and true as transcendents, etc.

I don’t see the process as either a rearguard action or a detailed restoration. Tradition is the natural state of man. So it’s a question of identifying and disrupting the things that disrupt it, strengthening the things that motivate and support it, and providing ways for it to defend itself so it can grow back. At this stage I see it mostly as a philosophical and spiritual problem.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 21, 2003 6:49 PM

“For example, might a separatist traditionalist community begin by adopting some specific earlier body of written legislation and case law in an unchanged form, despite the clearly anachronistic character much of this law would have?” — Ian Hare

It’s been done, Ian: check out the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, after two thousand years.

Of course, I believe the Zionists adopted not the ancient Israeli case law, which hadn’t come down to our time intact enough for that, but much of the Anglo-Saxon Common Law instead (which, together with its widespread fluency in, and near-official use of, English as its lingua franca, makes modern Israel a semi-member-in-good-standing of the Anglosphere.)

Posted by: Unadorned on January 21, 2003 6:58 PM

Mr. Kalb says: “Rather than immersing themselves in arguments over solutions to social problems, conservatives must point out that politics cannot consist of technical fixes but must include loyalty to things that can’t be altogether rationalized.”

Here is a situation to determine whether I understand correctly. In 1960, America was the wealthiest, most powerful, and most prosperous nation in the world. Europe was not nearly the economic force it is today. America had a low crime rate relative to today. But America was segregated and men and women lived stereotypical lives.

Instead of trying sudden bureaucratic fixes such as equal rights, a traditionalist would have argued in favor of remaining loyal to thousands of years of segregation and stereotypes given the enormous successes achieved despite those two supposedly evil things. The main force of the argument would have included the length of time and the goodness of American culture relative to every other country. The traditionalist might have accepted minimal changes by necessity but would have maintained different societies co-existing within the same borders. For example, the traditionalist might have accepted equal access to publicly funded things such as buses, government jobs, and public property but have encouraged hiring, socializing, residing, borrowing, and marrying within one’s own culture.
Do I have the idea?

A problem is that these arguments were made, and they failed. (But that is not to say they cannot be made again.)

Posted by: P Murgos on January 21, 2003 9:57 PM

A question. When people talk about “tradition”, and the importance or primacy of it, what exactly are they talking about? Is it traditional values, as in family structure, the traditional roles for men and women, sex only within life long marriage and so forth. Or does tradition refer to religion and religious beliefs. Or is it a combination of these two? And are there other forms of tradition? Also, I’m wondering where Nationalism fits into the model Jim decribes above. Ok, that was three questions, but I am new to this.

Posted by: Shawn on January 21, 2003 11:14 PM


First I’d like to thank you for your provocative contribution to the body of politically incorrect thought. Your “anti-inclusiveness faq” was featured on my blog today.

One problem I have, though, with your formulation is your assertion that conservatism “differs” from classical liberalism. There is nothing in the canons of any strain of libertarianism of which I’m aware (excepting, perhaps, the fraudulent “leftist libertarian” mutation) which precludes full implementation of any sort of tradition-based society you might deem desirable. Indeed, I would argue that it is ONLY within a libertarian paradigm that such a society is even imaginable.

If you wish to base a society on tradition, it seems to me that you implicitly acknowledge that the people of whom your society will be composed must be a fairly homogenous lot. That is, they have a common understanding of what these traditions are and how they prescribe and proscribe behavior. Without as much, your efforts are doomed from the start.

But ONLY within a framework of voluntary and consensual associations can you achieve this level of homogeneity! And only libertarianism, or “classical liberalism” offers such a framework.

Unless, of course, you wish to expand your concept of a tradition-based society to segments of the populace that have long ago rejected many of the underlying beliefs whose acceptance you would doubtless count as essential to its success. In which case, alas, only LEFTIST dogma can hope to provide you with the sort of power you would require to implement your ideas. And as you have already concluded - they aren’t exactly fellow-travelers.

In summary, I would probably like to live in your tradition-based society. It’s attainment, however, is simply not possible without first greatly expanding the realm of personal autonomy to something approaching the classical liberal model.

Ed Mick

Posted by: Ed Mick on January 22, 2003 2:07 AM

Ed Mick is right to the extent that a “modern traditionalist” community couldn’t force anyone to join or remain a member against their wishes.

But why the emphasis on voluntary and consensual association? A lot of the most important associations have little to do with the free consent of an autonomous individual.

Getting married and having kids is only briefly a matter of consent, and no-one in their right mind would do it to become autonomous. We do it, though, because there are more important things than individual autonomy.

I never chose the race I am associated with, nor the fact of being male and having particular forms of masculine association, nor the nation I was born in which gives me particular associations to my countrymen. But so what? Is the quality or importance of these associations diminished in any way by the fact that they are largely involuntary?

Posted by: Mark Richardson on January 22, 2003 6:59 AM

To Mr. Murgos:

You have part of the idea. When objections are raised to traditions though it’s not enough to say “this is how we’ve been doing it and things haven’t been going so badly” although of course that is something that should be said. You also have to criticize the grounds of the objections and point out what’s good and necessary about the traditions. Also, you have to plug the principle of tradition in general.

“Integration” is basically the view that all distinctions among peoples living among each other should be abolished by force of law. Such distinctions are thought to be simply a matter of irrational and therefore unjust “prejudice.” So the whole project is based on the view that culture — all the habits, attitudes, assumed standards, presumptions, ties, loyalties, collective memories etc. one acquires by growing up in a particular social and ethnic setting — don’t matter at all and if they do matter they should be forced not to matter. It’s denial of the importance and even legitimacy of tradition as such. All particular tradition is to be replaced by individual choice and formal public institutions — bureaucracies and markets.

Mainstream feminism is a somewhat similar view only applied to sex instead of ethnicity. The idea is that sexual differentiation has no proper role with respect to family life, or that family life has no proper role anywhere, and if people think and act otherwise then the government ought to straighten them out. Since family is the setting in which tradition is passed on such a view is plainly antitraditional on principle. (It’s also antinatural, antihuman and anti-everything else worth favoring.)

Both views are thoroughly ignorant, profoundly antihuman, and plainly tyrannical. We see their consequences in the state of American culture and government today. So it seems to me there are arguments beyond “we’ve never done it that way before” that could have been advanced in opposition to them. They should had been more widely opposed from the beginning with more consciousness of what was at stake.

To Shawn:

The draft essay includes a lot of discussion of what tradition and traditionalism are:

“accept[ance of] the arrangements that grow out of the attitudes, practices and beliefs that become authoritative over time in the life of a community”

“attachment to heritage”

“concern[] with social practices more from the point of view of the practices themselves than from a clear unifying perspective … find[ing] it natural for the major aspects of life to run on their own principles and recognize each other’s authority”

“accept[ing] what’s passed down just because it’s passed down”

“appeal[s] to loyalty, continuity and settled facts”

“living with social practices as they are and working with them in light of experience and tradition, rather than remodeling society on abstract principles like efficiency and equality”


Why not start with those as answers to your questions?

Nationalism is different from traditionalism. It seems to emphasize some sort of unified essence of all the traditions of a country. That seems a bit of a contradiction although I suppose mild nationalism can be useful defensively (against foreign invasion, internationalism or whatever).

To Mr. Mick:

Thanks for featuring the Anti-Inclusiveness FAQ.

In comparison with what we have today a traditionalist society would have a lot of classical liberal features because most government today is bureaucratic social administration and a traditionalist society would reject that. Still, the two are different. A classical liberal society recognizes freedom — the untrammelled human will, within the limits of formal institutions like property and contract set up to resolve conflicts — as the ultimate public standard. It thus rejects on principle the public authority of religion and substantive morality (moral standards that don’t relate to property and contract). It views such things as purely private matters. In the long run I don’t think that works. The public and the private can’t be divided so neatly and the things that are most important to us can’t be kept strictly in private life.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 22, 2003 7:29 AM

To understand where any of the named “troika” of social organization, is taking humanity into the future we could focus on how each uses its power in the modern world.

Nothing is static today especially the definitions Mr. Kalb refers to above. Power is the means by which societies interact with each another.

I would ask whether societies, bureaucratic, markets or traditional are exercised power equitably for its own citizens and fairly toward other citizens or nations.

Posted by: sandy on January 25, 2003 11:27 AM

“I would ask whether societies, [be they] bureaucratic, market[-oriented], or traditional [ones], … exercise power equitably for [their] own citizens and fairly toward other citizens or nations.” — Sandy

But Sandy, isn’t one of Mr. Kalb’s main points precisely the analysis of the degree to which certain organizational set-ups for societies are intrinsically unjust, or push things strongly in the dirction of injustice? Governmental injustices and possible remedies for them are exactly what he’s discussing — no? If your point is that a society which permits tradition to thrive instead of tearing it down at every turn might also become unjust, well, don’t you think the question is at least worth exploring? I mean, it couldn’t be worse than the set-up the ACLU-left has got oppressing us now, no? As a lawyer, what do you think, Sandy, of outrages like the attempted forbidding of that Alabama judge to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom? Do you think it’s right that religion-haters, heterosexuality-haters, white-Euro-haters, and normalness-haters have the unchallenged upper hand nowadays and are lording it over everyone else? Can’t we explore ways to get out from under their overlordship?

Posted by: Unadorned on January 25, 2003 1:06 PM

There is merit to the position that the style or name given a societal organization is a tip off to the direction towards which that society will use its power. Bureacracy tends to move toward more and greater bureaucracy, tradition toward its own organizing ideals and market economies toward ever expanding markets. But within those shells dynamic forces are at play which can affect the whole world..

I’m inclined to think that whatever name is given the power structure that enforces a societies rules, its real measure of health must be in the tension or balance between the morally legitimate elements of that society. The health of free market democracies, for example, can be found in competitive or offsetting power between the branches of government.

If one societal element overcomes the others and by legal, or illegal, means seizes power and control of the others, then that society can go pell-mell into some kind of dictatorial lockdown and minority interests are either erased or elevated out of all proportion. As long as the necessary tension between legitimate power groups remains, however, a rebalancing is always possible for the future.That is what is missing in the Islamic world, lack of any secular power to offset the religious power.

Unfortunately, the historical morality that should undergird human social organizations is largely absent in the modern world. Loss of historical morality comes from, I believe, an erosion of common social mores.

At law school we were taught Common law and Roman Law. Both forms were applied by colonization to the America’s- Common law in North America and Roman Law in South America. They are so different that I think of them as being from different planets.Roman law, to me, can never produce any more than nominal forms of democracy and generally has resulted in so called democratic-socialism, which is easier to corrupt into dictatorship than a republican form founded on Common Law.

The American Constitution is, however, an truly excellent proxy for that historical morality because the founders were able to translate much of that morality into a political manifesto that guaranteed the tensions necessary to good political health. That’s why we have by turns been enthralled by the executive, the legislative and the judicial branch at times.
Imho we are just coming out of a period of strong minority gains and the democratic pendulum is swinging toward the opposing conservative perspective. That tension so what is so productive of VFR debate

Posted by: sandy on January 25, 2003 9:43 PM

Jim Kalb: I am interested to discover that you believe that tradition is “natural,” so that its preservation becomes a matter of removing things which disrupt it more than reconstructing it deliberately. It seems to me that the naturalness of tradition is destroyed once society matures to a certain stage, where intellectuals start subjecting traditions to close analysis and destructive criticism: the “rationalist crisis,” I think B. de Jouvenel terms it. In our society this stage corresponded to the Renaissance. I suggest that a new traditionalism would have to be far more conscious and active than the original kind.

The role of economic change is also central here. If our tradition is economic and technological freedom, then this tradition contains the seeds of its own destruction: rapid economic transformation leads to the disruption of the communities needed to support tradition. Traditionalism would appear to require something like a medieval economic system.

Posted by: Ian Hare on January 26, 2003 2:49 PM

Ed Mick: I held something like the same position you advance here until a short while ago, but now I’m more doubtful. There may be a basic problem with the viability of voluntary traditionalist communities. If people are free to leave these communities in large numbers, it means that they are free to establish similar communities, largely made up of the same people as the original intentional traditionalist communities, which however put less onerous demands on their members. For example, divorce might be forbidden in the original community but permitted in the new community, and many in the original community might prefer to migrate to the new community in order to make their marital situation more pleasant. Yet it may be true that a ban on divorce, and/or various other traditional restrictions, are necessary for a community which is viable over a number of generations. If so, then those communities which are potentially viable in the long run might break down, by losing members faster than they can be replaced, when placed within a wider libertarian order which insisted that each community allow its members complete freedom to leave the community. (This would seem less likely if the communities were based on fairly large territories, e.g. North American states or provinces, as emigration from territorial communities tends to be slower.)

Posted by: Ian Hare on January 26, 2003 3:08 PM

Unadorned asked

“what do you think,…., of outrages like the attempted forbidding of that Alabama judge to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom? Do you think it’s right that religion-haters, heterosexuality-haters, white-Euro-haters, and normalness-haters have the unchallenged upper hand nowadays and are lording it over everyone else? Can’t we explore ways to get out from under their overlordship?”

I did not mention the Alabama judge vs. the 10 Commandments because by the time I read your post his decision had already been reversed on appeal. One cannot predict the specific outcomes in these state contests but, generally, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward conservative values.

The real but hidden battleground, the one Republicans are just beginning to understand, will be over the appointment of traditional minded judges at all levels in our state and federal courts.These lifetime appointments are the key to conservatism’s future efforts to roll back the erosion of traditional social mores in America. For decades democrats have been “packing” state and federal courts with judges who reflect their left wing social outlook. They have made a new majority from a hodge-podge of “rainbow” minority hate groups, ala Jesse Jackson, that nearly displaced the middle class in our country.

The Dems are now fighting a rear guard action in congress over the Presidents power of judicial appointment. They see the future written clearly in those appointments-thats why they are so vehement in oppostion.We’ll probably see the fist filibustes of the 21st century over this issue alone- unless the President caves in.

So Unadorned, we are indeed exploring ways to get out from under their overlordship. I must also say that I have learned the bitter lesson that we should never, never, never trust the nationally elected democrats to agree on anything in congress.

I see them as a perfidious lot who use the expression bipartisonship as a cover word to divide, confuse and defeat conservatives in peace and the phrase loyal opposition to cover treasonous dissent in the war on terror.

Posted by: sandy on January 27, 2003 7:07 AM

“[T]he naturalness of tradition is destroyed once society matures to a certain stage, where intellectuals start subjecting traditions to close analysis and destructive criticism … “

But the intellectuals eventually destroy any possible position from which to analyze and criticize. Tradition is necessary for coherent thought because it’s how we get the basic commitments and understandings that make thought possible. If there’s a line of intellectual development that disrupts it in increasingly far-reaching ways that line of development won’t last and something radically different will replace it. Ancient philosophy ended in skepticism but antiquity ended in Christendom.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on January 31, 2003 5:04 PM

Jim Kalb: I can’t tell whether your general position is basically optimistic, pessimistic, or a self-contradictory combination of the two. On the one hand you see tradition as “natural” and apparently not in need of active and imaginative intervention on anyone’s part for its preservation—or more indirectly for the preservation of social conditions, for instance more settled communities, able to perpetuate tradition (or to give rise to a new tradition). On the other hand, we agree, I think, that intellectual culture is not merely corroding society but tearing itself apart as well. The apparent implication of these observations is that the rebuilding of tradition will occur “naturally” (or perhaps by supernatural intervention) but only after the destruction of both existing society and existing intellectual culture. If so then one might do well to consider ways of modifying this unpleasant natural course of events at least on some local level.

Christianity presumably benefitted from the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage, i.e., it did not represent an entirely new beginning. Even so, antiquity ended not only with the decline of intellectual culture but with despotic government, political collapse, economic decay, takeover by a small number of energetic barbarians, a centuries-long Dark Age. And presumably this period would have been darker and longer if it had not been for active measures to preserve the (by-then traditional) religion and culture in the form of the establishment of monasteries somewhat isolated from the surrounding society.

Posted by: Ian Hare on February 4, 2003 4:29 PM

I say

“The fight for tradition is not a matter of creating it or putting it on life support but of opposing the things that disrupt it, strengthening the things that support it, and providing ways for it to defend itself so it can grow back when it has been weakened. It is facilitating the natural functioning of human society.”

That’s not the same as saying that nothing can be done. Tradition is natural in the sense that health is natural. You can’t force it or construct it but you can do things that favor it. And I agree that one reason for keeping up the fight for tradition is that even if defeats are constant at some point bottom will be reached and at that point the more that has been maintained the better.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on February 4, 2003 5:33 PM

What Makes a Republican - a REPUBLICAN?

We have spent the better part of the last half century forgetting the reasons that Republicans are part of an American First tradition and the real meaning of the GOP. Just what are the principles and policies that separate the platform of Republicans from that of the Socialists that wear the Democratic label? Sorry to say, not much of a difference presently exists; let alone a dedication to enact legislation that counters the legacy of FDR. It wasn’t like this - once upon a time … For Republicans knew what they were all about and had an example of a true champion of principle in one, Senator Robert A. Taft.

Taft is most famous for his opposition to Franklin Roosvelt’s New Deal Legislation and policies. He has been called the last “Old Right” political. While some may conclude that this description points out that we have ‘moved on’, the essential question remains. Were the policies of Taft the real essence of Republicanism? Principles never die, changing circumstances only seek out appropriate applications. Liberty of the individual was the hallmark of Taft that earned him the name, Mr Republican. The New Deal’s expansion of federal power at the expense of state and local government is incompatible with the core bedrock of Republican philosophy. Taft vigorously urged economy in government and restoration of balanced budgets, while supporting a very limited role in foreign affairs. He voted against NATO, supported strong tariffs, opposed the draft and sponsored legislation that bears his name, the Taft-Hartley Law.

If Republicanism isn’t about opposing the Federal Income Tax and the Federal Reserve System, just what did the party ever stand for to begin with?

When it comes to foreign policy, the last century is one of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace”. Taft speaks directly to this point:

“Fundamentally, I believe the ultimate purpose of our foreign policy must be to protect the liberty of the people of the United States. The American Revolution was fought to establish a nation “conceived in liberty.” That liberty has been defended in many wars since that day. That liberty has enabled our people to increase steadily their material welfare and their spiritual freedom. To achieve that liberty we have gone to war, and to protect it we would go to war again …

Only second to liberty is the maintenance of peace… . Our traditional policy of neutrality and non-interference with other nations was based on the principle that this policy was the best way to avoid disputes with other nations and to maintain the liberty of this country without war. From the days of George Washington that has been the policy of the United States. It has never been isolationism; but it has always avoided alliances and interference in foreign quarrels as a preventive against possible war, and it has always opposed any commitment by the United States, in advance, to take any military action outside of our territory. It would leave us free to interfere or not according to whether we consider the case of sufficiently vital interest to the liberty of this country. It was the policy of the free hand.”

In his book, Principles Without Program: Senator Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy - he conveys his views as core Republican principles that are as valid today as they were when originally written. So why does the Republican Party work overtime to run in lock step with the Socialism of the New Frontier, Great Society and New World Order? The answer is obvious, the Republicanism has been removed from the party and has been replaced with a neo-conservatism sham that is a betrayal of America’s tradition.

How many remember the names of these brave leaders that fought so hard to retain the promise of the American way of life? Just what was their cause and why do most Republicans ignore their heritage? Taft sums up nicely the purpose of their task:

“There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world…. If we confine our activities to the field of moral leadership we shall be successful if our philosophy is sound and appeals to the people of the world. The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. They are inspired by the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas abroad as recent Administrations have desired to enforce at home. In their hearts they want to force on these foreign people through the use of American money and even, perhaps, arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles.”

Robert Taft believed in the “Federalism” model of the American Republic. His faith was in basic American values and the abilities of the people to seek Liberty. Achieving this goal requires that such liberty is founded upon an economic system based on free enterprise, a political system based on citizen participation, and national independence and sovereignty for our country.

Internationalist Republicans have become mutants, with the abdication of purpose for their party. Just what is the point of having two shades of the same color when that hue is one and the same in Socialism. If you say the debate is over and the future belongs to the most popular collectivist, then America is already deceased.

Even under the great Ronald Reagan, the Departments of Education and Energy continued. Just look at the record! When was the last time a ‘so called’ conservative remained ardent in the fight against social democracy? Taft’s principles are timeless because they represent the best chance for the freedom of a free people. Or does that idea scare so many, that Liberty is no longer our mutual objective? With the dawn of this new century, it is time to remember the common sense of past generations and devote ourselves to the reinvention of practical policies that apply those principles to our current condition. Anything short of this reformation, will confirm that the GOP has lost it’s way. Rediscover what a Republican really means …

SARTRE - March 10, 2002

Posted by: SARTRE on February 5, 2003 10:47 AM

Open Appeal to Conservatives

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. —Hamlet, IV:5

A deep confusion has overtaken our land. A lack of understanding of our own history and its meaning is epidemic. A conveyance of personal identity has been transposed into a frenzy for Statism. And a dependence in allegiance to unquestioned leadership has replaced common sense. No wonder that those who view themselves as conservatives, are bewildered.

It has customarily been accepted that conservative thinking is mostly associated with the Republican Party. In a previous article, this critic wrote: What Makes a Republican - a REPUBLICAN? The case was presented that the true tradition of the GOP is the heritage of Senator Robert A. Taft. Today, few within the fold of the party that claims the legacy of Ronald Reagan comprehends what he represented, let alone what Taft stood for. Many wear the label of conservative, but seldom do they know what it really means.

Consider what Charlie Reese recently said on the subject. In Conservative Or Blockhead? - we have a basic and clear assessment of the problem that faces those who defend the policies of the current administration, at all costs. It is not the intent to malign, folks who should be natural allies. But it is our desire to raise explicit challenges to their mindset. So what exactly is a conservative?

Well, many falsely conclude that a conservative resists change or seeks to maintain the status quo. Some even define this philosophy as support of the current political regime. Not just the current administration, but common policies that have been enacted by both major parties over the last half century. Unfortunately, such notions just add to the fiction of a very bad political melodrama.

True Conservatism is a defense and promotion of eternal principles. It is proactive and not reactionary. It is based upon the integrity and validity of proven standards, that recognize the immutable nature of man, the inherent danger of unlimited power and the dignity of every individual. Liberty is the goal for a Free Society, and government is the servant of the People. So far, who would want to disagree? It seems that many mainstream and establishment career seekers are most willing to dispute the proper course for conservatives.

Isn’t our task the upholding of a Constitutional Republic? That is exactly the goal of the genuine conservative. But what we constantly hear from those who want us to swallow that they are really ‘conservatives’ is that times have changed and that we need to adjust to the new realities. Let’s get one thing straight! Times always change, but true principles remain constant. Adjustments to current conditions, cultural differences and worldly aspirations never negate the consistency and authenticity of core values.

Face up to the fact that many Republicans are not conservatives. Deal with the reality that many NeoCons are “collectivists”, and have the decency to admit that most moderates are unabridged apologists for internationalism. Yes, the choice is obvious - an empire is not within the tradition of an American Republic.

We have presented countless essays that have dealt with the specifics of what actually is the mutual best interest of America. We have made the lucid distinctions that America is an idea, empowered in her People; and not equivalent to her government. And we have chronicled the historic record of our nation’s unique experience. For many they hear only that which supports their delusion that for a citizen to be patriotic, they must accept the current political structure, practices and policies. Anyone want to defend the recent record?

Are Republicans capable of governance when they hold the majority? With achieving power have the reigns of government restored our Constitution? Newt Gingrich was brilliant as a minority agitator and a genius in forging the strategy to gain control of the House of Representatives. But what has changed? Even the best and brightest, were not able to reverse the welfare society. So what do mainstream conservative impostors stand for? Certainly not traditional values and America First aspirations.

Now before you scream that Pat Buchanan was a defector to leave the Republican Party, explain where one can find the partisanship of Robert Taft. We can debate and even disagree on particular domestic and foreign policies. You do not have to adopt every tenant of the Old Guard to accept conservatism. But how can anyone walk down the path of total capitulation to the socialism of the last ten decades and still claim that they are a conservative? If Republicans reject the inheritance of our tradition, out of a perception that we must concede to the way the world is, and accept a New World Order, what common ground do we share?

There is no doubt on my sentiments concerning counterfeit conservatives. Read about “Velvet Conservatism” for the entire story. But where do you stand? Are you one of them, do you support their policies and will you expel advocates that maintain the true tradition of the conservatives?

It was us who said “you are with us or against us” … Does that test apply to sincere and legitimate disagreement over all policies or just those that seek to wage perpetual undeclared war? Would you broaden that attitude against efforts to limit the uninterrupted expansion and scope of the State, or are you simply content to seek your own control over the machinery of that government? What about eliminating and abolishing the agencies and bureaucracy of the socialist edifice, would you join us or are you willing to keep them as an acceptable compromise to today’s reality? Is multiculturalism OK with you or will you oppose its regression?

If you look upon paleoconservatives as your adversary, what gives you the right to claim that you are a conservative?

It seems that you might just have more in common and have sympathy with the Liberal Progressive Democrat agenda than with the attributes that created the Republic. We urge you to return to your true roots, abandon the heresy of contemporary convenience and rethink the essence of conservatism. The hope of the nation rests upon honorable citizens of good will, sound thinking and courage to battle the forces that are determined to destroy the dream that America represents. You should not fear us - but join us. We don’t want to rule, control or coerce others. Can you say the same of yourselves?

SARTRE - June 20, 2002

Posted by: SARTRE on February 5, 2003 10:49 AM

Two questions for “Sartre”:

Given Taft’s opposition to foreign involvements, what was his position on the Cold War, NATO, containment of Communism, and so forth?

Why is a self-described exponent of the old Right calling himself by the name of a renowned Stalinist?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 5, 2003 12:14 PM

Jim Kalb writes: “But what personal reason do any of us have to treat tradition as authoritative? (…) The answer is found in the nature of human life. To accept tradition is to accept life on the whole as we find it. The alternative is to construct some new form of life based on supposed superior knowledge.”

Mr Kalb contrasts “accepting tradition” (he is for it) with “constructing some new form of life” (he is against it). Well, we (humans) have more options - for example, changing our traditions gradually. Modern liberal culture must be seen as a product of such a process - long evolution of christian culture, evolution consisting of a great number of small changes in areas like religion, art, science, politics, private life, economy, etc. All these small changes cumulate into one big change, for modern western culture is simply christian culture without God. Mr Kalb does not like this change (and all the small changes leading to it) but argument from tradition is not enough to justify his opposition to modern liberal culture because this culture is just another stage in the process of evolution of our (western) tradition.

[Sorry for linguistic errors and banality of these remarks.]

Posted by: Ar(t)isto on February 14, 2003 5:35 PM

Changing traditions gradually in the manner described isn’t exactly an “option,” since an option is something chosen consciously.

Moving to more substantive matters, Mr. Aristo/Artisto says that simple argument from tradition is not enough to justify opposition to modern liberal culture. Indeed. That’s why I explicitly say as much in the piece itself.

His general point seems to be that tradition as such cannot be an argument against any cultural state of affairs. Tradition, he suggests, necessarily validates current practices and attitudes because those practices and attitudes *are* tradition as it actually exists. Or so I read him.

The answer is that tradition is not a formal decisionmaking procedure. Rather, it’s the necessary setting and precondition of sensible decisions. That’s why we have to respect it. Respecting it can’t mean following it blindly. Tradition always has internal conflicts, so we couldn’t follow it blindly if we wanted to. Further, it is always justified by reference to something (e.g., the good for man) that it does not fully grasp. If men could fully grasp the good we wouldn’t need tradition, we could just have experts tell us what to do.

The point of my piece is that formal procedures like bureaucracy and markets, and explicit decisionmaking generally, necessarily take place within a setting of traditional practices and understandings that are accepted and trusted. It follows that if practices and understandings arise that try to extend the scope of formal procedures excessively you start getting destructive results that aren’t hard to recognize as such. To the extent those practices and understandings have become a tradition you’ll therefore be able to recognize it as a bad tradition. And that, I think, is where we are.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on February 15, 2003 8:56 AM

There is an apparent problem with Mr. Kalb’s idea of tradition which I’m not sure he has responded to as of yet. It is his apparent assumption that tradition, the inherited way of life of a people, must be in every case inherently good. But, just as an individual human being can be disfunctional or even horrible, traditions can be disfunctional or horrible. Robert Edgerton’s 1992 book Sick Societies gives many examples of cultures that are repulsive and anti-human in various ways. Surely there is something amiss in a tradition that requires female genital mutilation, or that forces women to cover themselves like sacks of potatoes, or that pushes young men into homosexuality because of a shortage of available women created by polygamy.

I think the answer to this problem is to remember that tradition means not just whatever comes from the past, but rather what comes from the past as a vehicle of transcendent and natural, and thus normative, understandings, with normative relating to the full and balanced development of human beings. Without that two-dimensional understanding of tradition (i.e. the inherited and the transcendent), traditionalism can easily become a form of relativism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 15, 2003 11:50 AM

Correction: Mr. Kalb does seem to have replied to my concerns in the original article, where he says:

“As for bad traditions, we know they are bad through other traditions. Ultimate standards of goodness, beauty and truth are too basic to isolate and study from outside. Since our relationship to them is part of what makes us what we are, they are beyond the reach of the ideals of neutrality and impartial expertise that have led moderns to try to base everything on economics, social science and formal abstractions like equality. Without involvement in forms of life that embody ultimate standards, we can’t know them.”

In other words, higher standards are needed to judge the goodness of various traditions, but we cannot know such higher standards apart from a particular tradition that embodies them. This would seem to be similar to Aristotle’s idea that we know virtuous conduct not as an abstraction but through seeing the actual conduct of a virtuous man.

However he defines the issue, Mr. Kalb does acknowledge that traditions must be judged by a higher standard and so I withdraw my criticism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 15, 2003 12:01 PM

This excellent article does not address yet makes plain the reason why I cannot abide libertarians in general. The disregard for tradition and “socially conservative” ideas among libertarians is a self-contradiction. Tradition is the result of the market over time. There are traditions shared by all societies—and history has frequently demonstrated what happens when the traditions of any society are overturned. The French school persists in seeing America as a new thing that came about because geniuses figured out a new way to reorder civilization. That IS what happened in the French Revolutions, and its also the reason why they’re on their 6th republic. The American Revolution was traditional at its heart—there were peasant rebellions in England going back to the earliest Anglo-Saxon period. Those rebellions always happened when the traditional rights were infringed. That is what happened in America as well. There was a tradition of freedom: the English, Royal/Parlimentary tradition. The Declaration happened because there was no longer any hope for the redress of grievances against the proper usages of subject of the crown. There were many attempts before to get Parliament or the King to restore the rights of colonials, but since they failed, rebellion was actually a traditional remedy. The division of our founding congress was between those who were going to build a new world order and those who wanted to maintain the rights and traditions of the English constitution. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since over time this tug-of-war removed many bad traditions left from the old world. The very freedoms and rights that we enjoy still are the remnants of traditions not yet stripped away, and if those traditions vanish, whether the opponent be socialist or libertarian, then any form of liberty will be left to the whim of fate or tyrant.
A true libertarian, then ought still to subscribe to the English school, since the events of the past few centuries have demonstrated that the English/American tradition is superior to its rivals. Self-improvement and the willingness to defy tradition is an integral part of that tradition, and if a balance can be maintained then the future becomes much less fearful. The marketplace of the world has determined the value of the American tradition.
Would-be petty tyrants naturally dislike any form of tradition, since it constrains their whim. Socialists deplore tradition, since it stands in the way of the glorious future that will come sometime or other. Until it does, the revolutionary vanguard get to be petty tyrants, or even full-scale hard-core tyrants, so there’s a double reason to hate tradition from the socialist perspective. Libertarians, however, are merely mistaken in their dislike for tradition. I think many wrongly think that disdaining tradition is consistent with their overall mode of thinking. There are many who call themselves anarchists in my profession who have nothing to do with Bakhunin. They want pure freedom, without any constraint, and especially the constraints of social, moral or religious traditions. This causes me no particular dread, so long as they will respect my right to despise them for their foolishness.
Tradition has far more power than law, and I believe laws are often created to uphold a waning tradition. There is no reason for the law until the practice becomes more common, though there are exceptions such as murder and rape, etc. These are with us always. The Jim Crow laws in the south, however, were created to preserve the (bad) traditions of the antebellum South. Fortunately not all of the good traditions of the South were lost in reconstruction, but they didn’t need laws to maintain them. The military is disproportionately Southern, and anyone who has lived in the South knows that good manners have survived there while being despised as weak in many other parts of the country.
The focus ought to be on maintaining good traditions while letting the bad vanish. I’m really tired of standards changing every five minutes depending on the whim of some wannabe tyrant. What a tradition is, at the core, is a standard that has withstood the test of time. Sometimes rotten traditions manage to last a long time, but there is always a practical reason for it. Slavery, for example, was not always so inefficient as it would be now. There are reasons that it existed in every culture in the world for so long. That one has been left behind, and thank heaven for it. It would not have been possible, however, without the long buildup that resulted in America. Building on traditions is the surest way to vanquish the bad ones. Despising tradition will only make things worse.

Jim Wilson
aka The Laird Jim

Posted by: James Wilson on February 17, 2003 11:16 PM

There is a fundamental problem here: traditionalsim is never fully defined because tradition has not been. Rather than a constant, tradition is defined as old beliefs. That leads to the relativistic question: “Which Beliefs?”
If we are only talking about older beliefs, then we are only reactionaries seeking to re-impose older mores. It puts us in league with neocons who wish to set the clock back to 1960.

Traditionalism only makes sense if tradition is defined as a constant. Much to the dismay of leftists and even some libertarians, there are some universal constants among humans. History, cross-cultural literary studies of stable societies, anthropology, and socio-biology do seem to make some overlaping conclusions.
It is possible to set “tradition” to be these universal norms. However, that would be a relatively small set.
I beleve that if “tradition” has any meaning, there must be a relativistic element. That is every society has its own organic traditions. These include the universal truths, but have evolved seperately.
As Americans, our traditions cannot be seperated from the ideas of liberty that caused us to break with Great Britain and English America. Our tradition (sorry, Jeffersonians) has never been license. Instead it has been tempered by Religion (certain forms of Protestant sects in particular), Nationalism, and community.

Posted by: Ron on February 18, 2003 3:43 AM

It seems to me I do say what tradition and traditionalism are:

“The third possibility, tradition, accepts the arrangements that grow out of the attitudes, practices and beliefs that become authoritative over time in the life of a community.”

“[Conservatives] are concerned with social practices more from the point of view of the practices themselves than from a unifying external perspective.”

“To accept tradition is to accept life on the whole as we find it. The alternative is to construct some new form of life based on supposed superior knowledge.”

“Tradition — the habit of loyalty toward one’s society and its ways … “

“[A] whole complex of habits, attitudes and beliefs supported by things like family arrangements, religious commitments, and standards of respectable conduct. Such things do not themselves operate on market or bureaucratic principles. They grow up informally and in ways that can’t be planned or controlled, through the growth of settled habits and attitudes among people who live together and deal with each other for a long time. They are thus essentially traditional.”

Ron’s complaint seems to be that I don’t specify “which tradition.” That’s quite true. The essay is an abstract discussion of different ways of arriving at social standards and creating social institutions. It’s not a proposal for action or statement of positive belief. It’s not itself an instance of traditionalism. Not every essay can do everything.

He suggests that to be worth considering tradition has to be connected with truth, although truth that is grasped somewhat differently in different communities. I agree, and discuss the point in the paragraphs beginning “As for bad traditions.”

Posted by: Jim Kalb on February 18, 2003 9:38 AM

Ron writes:
“I beleve that if ‘tradition’ has any meaning, there must be a relativistic element.”

Ron confuses “particular” with “relative” it seems to me. Everyone sees the world through his own particular eyes. Nobody sees the world literally through someone else’s eyes. I take Mr. Kalb’s abstract traditionalism to be something like the observation that the transcendent (the objectively good, the objectively beautiful, and the objectively true) can’t be apprehended more clearly by plucking our eyes out. So our own actual particular eyes have to be treated respectfully as authoritative. Objecting that other people see things through their own eyes rather that mine is a hollow objection, as is objecting that some peoples’ eyes have cataracts. If the good, the true, and the beautiful can only be known through a particular tradition then liberalism represents an attempt to will the world we want into existence by plucking out our eyes and walking the earth with empty sockets.

Posted by: Matt on February 18, 2003 12:08 PM
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