Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Socialism versus the family

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation on the topic “Socialism versus the Family.”  You can watch the lecture on YouTube or at the Heritage website.

The talk has three parts.  In the first, I explain what socialism is (and what it isn’t), and how it can come in degrees.  In the second, I discuss what the family is, and in particular the core notion of the family that underlies the diverse arrangements that have existed in different societies, the general moral outlook that has traditionally governed it in these different societies, and the way evolutionary psychology and social science support the judgment that the family is a natural rather than artificial institution.  In the third, I explain how socialism and the basic structure of the family are incompatible, and how liberal individualism has eroded the family and paved the way for socialism.  As I argue, if conservatives are effectively to oppose socialism, they must also oppose the liberal individualism that opens the door to it.


  1. I've been interested in your opinions on Socialism for a while. It's a pervasive topic nowadays. Also, I've heard Socialists of all stripes constantly move the goalposts by claiming that "Socialist country X isn't actually/was never Socialist in the first place". Of course, this is pretty clearly a form of self-defense by disassociation from failed projects and is almost never done until the project starts to fail (at the least, criticism of said regimes is much more muted until they begin to fail).

    But I've heard people say "Bernie Sanders is not a Socialist", "Venezuela was not socialist because it had a large private sector", "The Soviet Union was not Socialist, it was only State Capitalist", "Mao's China was not Socialist because blah blah...". Is there a good way to respond to people who constantly move the goalposts in such a manner? It might help to point out that there are degrees of Socialism, a country can be *somewhat* socialist without having total and utter public ownership of all of the means of production. In fact, I strongly suspect that equivocation is in play here; Venezuela is "Socialist enough" when it appears to be working and improving the quality of life of its people, but once it begins to fail, suddenly the definition of "Socialist" contracts dramatically and the fact that it didn't meet every jot and tittle of the interlocutor's idealised "Socialist system" justifies them completely disassociating Venezuela from socialism.

    1. One way to go about it is to point out that all these supposedly false attempts at socialism give evidence for the fact that it cannot actually be implemented well, either because you need some non-socialist features propping the system up or because people are inherently too corrupt to execute it in a way that ensures both some semblance of justice as well as egalitarianism.

    2. Bernie Sanders is not like the others in that example. At least not unless you equate the notion of welfare with socialism.

    3. There is a difference between democratic socialism and communism—democratic socialism is state-owned industry with free contracts, communism has coerced labor (i.e., democratic socialism is to communism as capitalism is to plantation slavery).

      Venezuela had democratic socialism, until the oil-market plummeted and they became a communist dictatorship in all but name. Scandinavia had democratic socialism until they realized it was inefficient and started de-nationalizing.

      Democratic socialism generally takes a decade or two before it ceases to be one of those two things.

    4. I'm not even sure he qualifies as a socialist even under those definitions you're giving Sophia. The example he always refer to is the Scandinavian Model.

      I live in Denmark (in Scandinavia), and we've had a social democratic government for the past 86 years. And its holding steady, we're one of the most successful countries in the world compared to our size.

      The Scandinavian Model, while being socialistic isn't socialism in any proper sense. There's a free market economy with mostly free trade. But there's also comprehensive welfare and collective bargaining.

      We do have one party left that actually advocates for the abolishment of capitalism. Its called the Unity List, but it barely gets any votes.

      Equating the very notion of welfare, and even government regulation with socialism is painting with a mile-wide brush.

    5. Not really. Socialism is that the means of production is owned by "the state" or "workers self-management". If you have privately owned companies then you don't have socialism. Read about mixed economy instead of calling moving the goalpost."

    6. @Sophia

      That still doesn't really answer his question. A communist might well argue that a communist dictatorship is a contradiction in terms, as there is no state in communism and thus no dictator. You also seem to have to go back several decades to find anything like a democracy in Venezuela. Chavez was a two-bit dictator for decades.

    7. @ccmnxc

      While I agree, I strongly suspect that our imagined socialist interlocutor would pin the blame on capitalist countries undermining said efforts (regardless of how plausible that might be).

    8. @Anonymous
      That's the equivocation fallacy. In Marxist theory "communism" refers to the hypothetical condition after the class-war has been won and the state and all stratification has passed away. In their theory, "socialism" refers to the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the worker's state that wages the class-war.

      In everyone else's use of the words, though, "communist" refers to the Marxist dictatorships, and "socialist" (without modification) refers to the "democratic" variety unless specified otherwise. So the Marxist is either deliberately or ignorantly equivocating and his "objection" doesn't matter.

      And Chavez was a two-bit demagogue for decades, but he wasn't truly dictatorial till things started to go south. Why would he have to be? His people were giving him most of what he wanted, because he was still popular.

    9. Dear Sopia's Favorite,

      I suggest you read:

      1. Socialism, by Ludwig von Mises. Mises, one of the world's most reknown and highly respected economists said there is no difference between socialism and communism.

      People who are only interested in splitting hairs should let that sink in and stop arguing about it.

      2. "Humanum Genus" by Pope Leo XIII, pub. 1884. (Available online at Papalencyclicals.net

      And remember this,

      USSR = Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics

      Hitler's Germany = National SOCIALIST German Workers Party

      BOTH had forced labor.

      Never ever allow yourself to think that one is a more benign form than the other.

    10. I explained the Marxist use of "socialist". Which includes the Nazi use, Nazis being Marxists who added a race-element to the class-war. "Inherently evil bourgeois exploiter, inherently virtuous exploited laborer" doesn't magically become something other than Marxist just because you add "that first guy's a Jew by the way".

      The same argument—"accept ideologues' use of terms as always meaning the same thing as other uses of those terms"—would also force us to count the Democratic People's Republic of Korea against "democracy" and "republics". Marxists mean something special by "socialist", just like they mean something special by "democratic".

      And Mises is not a historian (and his renown as an economist wouldn't make his obviously incorrect statement true, even if this were a purely economic question). The historical fact, readily ascertainable from even a basic knowledge of the history of the movement, is that there are non-Marxist socialists—Robert Owen Hood, for example, became a socialist the year Marx was born—and non-totalitarian ones. In practice they tend not to stay that way, because when all employers are state agencies labor disputes quickly acquire the moral and legal character of draft-dodging or tax evasion.

      Marxism is a particularly fanatical version of socialism where absolutely everything is reduced to a conspiracy theory that has something of the character of a secularized Gnosticism. Plenty of socialist thinkers reject the concept of "class war", but in fact speak of all classes as being in solidarity within society. (Then they naively assume that putting industry under state control would make it more responsive to the needs and wishes of the people, because government agencies are so great at that.)

    11. *Hood became a socialist the year before Marx's birth, rather.

  2. Defending the family is a great start. But it's not a perfect society, as St. Thomas Aquinas showed. Conservatism has also been responsible for destroying the naturally articulated society at large (in line with Bodin's ideological revolution that left almost nothing, socially speaking, between the state and the family), replacing natural social bodies with artificial ones like the market and the political party.

    1. Conservatism has also been responsible for destroying

      Slight adjustment for correction: Certain subsets of conservatives, and in some cases rather "conservatives", are responsible for destruction.

      replacing natural social bodies with artificial ones like the market

      But "the market" isn't a social body, it is an intermixing of a vast number of social bodies with a great many different features. And it isn't "artificial" in any sense at all, unless it is either (a) the top-down construct of a totalitarian government, or (b) artificial to a degree in terms of improper government regulation. According to an extremely strict reading of "natural", the only natural social entity is the family. If we loosen the sense just a little, the family firm / business is also "natural" (if slightly less so), and then also partnerships between families (also natural but just a bit less natural), and off we are to the formation of markets, naturally.

    2. I think those who wish to wear the conservative tag have to deal with the legacy of people like Edmund Burke, who is generally accepted across the board despite the variations which obviously exist within Anglo-conservatism.
      Therefore conservatives have to wear his invention of the market as a social force with rules he claimed were based on natural law (actually certain popular economic theories), superior to social bodies between the individual and the state, and charity itself (i.e. his famous dismissal of government requirements to feed the starving).
      Society at large is a natural entity. As Thomistic philosophy explains, the family is an imperfect social body unable to fulfil all its ends by itself.
      In practice, Burke divinization of the "market" as some kind of social entity existing in its own right and with its own laws, and his pioneering of the ideologically-based political party, established the pseudo-social bodies which have come to replace the rich array of social entities which once lay between the family and the state, the modern version of which is another problem.

    3. The opposition should be socialism vs liberalism, but even this way of looking at it still stays "within the horizon of modernity," the famous Eureka moment of Leo Strauss when he began criticizing Carl Schmitt. One should step outside to understand it, as Ed does in his lecture.

    4. I'm definitely sympathetic to notion that contemporary Anglo-American conservatives too uncritically embrace (classical) liberal economics, and liberalism in general. I recall, in a piece criticising Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro quoted one of Carlon's claims suggesting it sounded like something Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might say:

      "Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society."

      But I think it could just as easily be said that this is something Leo XIII, Russell Kirk, or Wilhelm Ropke might say. Shapiro then went to suggest this isn't something Reagan or Milton Friedman would say, not seeming to realise that Friedman was a classical liberal and in no sense a conservative.

      Still, I think it is a little unfair to accuse Burke of uncomplicately a liberal on economics. It is true he stands out amongst the conservatives of the end of the eighteenth through to the middle of the nineteenth century for his support of liberal economics. From Bonald to Disraeli, conservatives of the time made strong criticisms of liberal economics and the rising economic and industrial order. Burke, though, was a friend of Adam Smith and a proponent of his economic ideas. Still, I don't think it is quite right to see Smith as a free market fundamentalist. He strikes me as more like Wilhem Ropke in his appreciation of the necessary moral, social, and political underpinnings of a healthy market economy, than the likes of a Mises or Friedman. Such underpinnings were no doubt central to Burke's thoughts on the matter too.

    5. Milton Friedman would say, not seeming to realise that Friedman was a classical liberal and in no sense a conservative.

      I am constantly amazed at the notion that conservatism has to be apologetic for Friedman, given that he was not conservative.

      I think those who wish to wear the conservative tag have to deal with the legacy of people like Edmund Burke, who is generally accepted across the board despite the variations which obviously exist within Anglo-conservatism.

      Still, I think it is a little unfair to accuse Burke of uncomplicately a liberal on economics. It is true he stands out amongst the conservatives of the end of the eighteenth through to the middle of the nineteenth century for his support of liberal economics.

      The reality is, first, that Burke was not the founder of conservatism (see my post on the topic, here: http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2017/05/classical_liberalism_and_conse.html )
      and while he has some troubling ideas with regard to markets, he also had many right and proper ideas of custom and tradition as that pertains to both family and society. As with most thinkers of the middle EnDARKenment period, he allowed his response to the darkness of liberalism to be framed a little too much by the terms of the debate imposed by the liberals. But that was, in his case at least, a vice that is consistent with his virtues: since he was firmly of the mind to reject high-sounding theories when they run counter to obvious practical realities, his giving emphasis to the grass roots knowledge of human good and evil embedded in good and worthy customs, without attempting to reduce that knowledge to principles stated in abstract form, is less grave an omission in him than it might be in others. He was not, and never should have been mistaken for, the original founder and high priest of conservatism.

    6. Some quotes from Burke: "The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it,or reforming it, is... not to be taught a priori... The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned”; “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right"; "Metaphysical and physical speculations neither are nor ought to be, the Grounds of our Duties; because we can arrive at no certainty in them. They have weight when they concur with our own natural feelings, very little when against them".

      Burke hated rupture and dogma. For him, the closest thing to certainty was provided by historical social evolution. He considered religion and social traditions to be an expression of this. Of course he was fired up by what the revolutionaries were doing in the name of reason but these quotes the core the anglo-conservatism he fathered, and represent the death of any hope of establishing what natural law might be, which from a Thomistic point of view, requires the two things he rejects - reason and authority.
      His rejection of authority and dogma was clear in his attacks on papal infallibility and transubstantiation and the Protestant Reformation itself, because he believed they were intrusions on social evolution and tradition: "decrees" and "metaphysics".
      However, the whole arrival of Christianity in the classical world was based upon rupture and dogma, and the early Christians paid aa heavy price for it.
      Burke is considered the founder of conservatism because he was the first best-selling author to attack the revolution. But the conservative versus liberal (or revolutionary) argument is all just an inter-Enlightenment dispute, and all relative, because today's (or yesterday's) conservative is the day before's revolutionary. How can there be certainty and stability of thought in such an environment? It's not hard: abandon ideology and false philosophy. The Church was usually the first institution to respond to silly new ideas and always did so in the same way; by reiterating moral and dogmatic truth. How this is to be put into practice politically should not be subject to the latest ideological fad and unfortuntely Burke was guilty of that. The core of all conservatism (and its greatest marketing trick) is liking belief and believers and the society produced by it, without really believing itself. This utilitarian nd sentimental view of religion has never ceased to fool English-speaking believers into climbing aboard the conservative raft. The Petrine barque is better. In this sense, Cicero might be considered one of the first conservatives. He thought the object of classical worship was ridiculous, but useful to society.

    7. And? The way I see it, Tony's point basically boils down to "Burke was wrong on some things and had some troublesome ideas, but he was also right on some things and had some good ideas which we should not ignore". Posting examples of Burke's errors and mistakes obviously does not refute that moderate view.

      Burke's insistence on respect for practical realities and customs when it comes to politics is a welcome general attitude against imprudent top-down attempts to create a perfect social order in accordance with abstract principles. Abstract and metaphysical principles are surely welcome and have their own place, but a healthy dose of practical concern and presumption in favor of customs (as one may find in Burke) is essential to politics.

      As a matter of fact, I don't think bashing "anglo-american conservative thought" will get self-proclaimed traditionalists anywhere. Precisely because those who are actually versed in conservative thought will already display a tendency to be skeptical of their own political positions.

      I also don't find metaphysical criticisms (or defenses!) of this curious entity called "the Market" to be of much interest, either. The way I see it, it's a pragmatic issue. Free market economies appear to be better at developing society, producing wealth and peace. If (say) a welfare state system were better at improving the lives of the poor and overall contributing to the well-being of society than a free market, I'd be in favor of it. I just don't think it is the case, because I'm not convinced that (for example) welfare state systems work consistently.

    8. The self-proclaimed traditionalist here is Burke. The quotes posted reflect the philosophical traditionalism which is problematic and central to Burke and conservatism in general. We aren't going to get far by saying there's truth and non-truth there because we can say this about anything from Anabaptists to Al Qaida. Despite not having a Little Red Book, Anglo-conservatism is traceable back to Burke and is an identifiable ideology.

      Unfortunately, Burke went much further than rejecting abstract revolutionary social theory. He also denied the rational application of natural law to the social order was of any practical use. In assigning a merely utilitarian, socially stabilizing role to religion, he emptied it of real content. His proclamation that the "market" was superior to any perceived natural law was not a realist, pragmatic position, but a radically ideological one.
      Traditionalism, of which Burke was a forerunner, was a romanticist philosophy condemned by the Church. I think we need the realism to recognise that our economic landscape isn't natural or practical and is constantly shored up by Burkean-style ideology. Bashing Anglo-conservatism is profitable because its 200 years of co-opting religious people and even Catholics is a con that must end. AS for the anglo-conservatives themselves - yes, they are probably unable to achieve certaintly on anything apart from the unshakeable belief that economic relations are a science and divorced from religion. So conservatism doesn't want to feed Catholics to the lions? That's nice, but we can do better than play bit parts in someone else's operetta.

    9. Miguel,

      Do free market systems work better* than social democratic ones? I think that would be quite controversial a position. I think it is even controversial whether free trade is consistently better* than protectionism (see the work of Ha-Joon Chan). And then there is the issue of exactly when has there been a free market in the world. Some, again like Ben Shapiro (who I don't mind generally) seem to think that all the good things about the modern economy can be claimed for free market capitalism,and all state intervention, beyond enforcing basic law and order, can be seen as a drag on the economy. This is the position Kevin Carson has called vulgar libertarianism. I think such claims would need a lot of defence.* I say this, by the way, as someone who is a basically a Distributist, so no fan of either corporate-capitalism or social democracy. I'm sort of free market anti-capitalist, to borrow a phrase from the mutualists and left-libertarians.

      * In all this, I have mostly empirical evidence in mind, much more than theories of neoclassical or Austrian economics.

    10. The above, by the way, was about purely economic prosperity - the proliferation of consumer goods. When comes to social health, I don't think so called (but not) free market capitalism has been much better at developing society than social democratic systems. After the state, I think that capitalism, in its long history, has been the biggest problem for those permanent things conservatives and traditional Christians prize, like family, local community, etc.

      As for Anglo-American conservatism, I'm not so sure that today it is even that conservative. It often seems to be classical liberalism with a veneer of conservatism. Again I don't want to pick on Ben Shapiro, because of don't mind him, but he makes a good example because he is popular and because he just seems unable to differentiate between liberal economics and conservatism. I recall that I heard him just this week, when discussing progressive attacks on Amazon, he chided them as the sort of people who dislike Walmart for putting local shops (I believe Mum and Pop stores is the American phrase he used) out of business. He basically gave a three cheers for Walmart bit that could have come from the Cato or Mises Institutes. Now, I'm not saying a conservative needs to sign up fully to the anti-globalisation movement, even if I'm a proud Crunchy Con. But I think a conservative should display a little more circumspection than Shapiro did. I can't imagine someone like Russell Kirk would think Walmart's dominance of local retail an unalloyed good thing, just because it offered (allegedly*) cheaper goods.

      Miguel Cervantes,

      I believe that there are differing opinions on how to interpret Burke. I recall there is a tradition that sees him as a natural law theorist. In some of his writings, like his speech against Warren Hastings and his early works on the Irish situation, he seems close to a natural law position. There's even some today who argue he wad always a secret Catholic, like much of his family. I am not really convinced by this. It seems to rely on rumours spread by his enemies, combined with his concern for his Catholic countrymen, but it's interesting.

      * See Kevin Carson for arguments that corporate-capitalism is riven with state intervention that supports corporations and allows companies like Walmart to be competitive when they wouldn't be otherwise.

    11. Jeremy,

      That would be a long debate and I'd probably need to study more economics before attempting to make any case here. From what I've read and reflected about, I do lean towards free markets and I even have some sympathies for Austrian economics. I was once more friendly towards distributism, now I'm more skeptical. But again, I'd like to study more before firmly taking position and building a case.

      My point was that I am generally unimpressed by attempts to argue for or against economic models on the basis of metaphysical or ethical arguments. That's not to say there's no room for these considerations, as there can be ethical arguments even for some economic issues, but in general I take it to be a matter of pragmatism. For instance, the reason I currently favor free markets doesn't really have much to do with arguments about personal autonomy and so on (at the end of that spectrum you might find ideological ancaps who consider taxation to be theft, for example), it's just that I am convinced this system (free markets as an example) provides better results when it comes to improve living conditions, wealth and other basic needs for society in general. If I became convinced social democracy, or distributism, or another system would give better results, then I would defend them instead. It is generally a matter of economics and pragmatism for me. I often see so-called "traditionalists" criticizing markets and "modernity" and the "secularized systems" on the basis of some metaphysical and ethical arguments which I don't think work all that well.

      I do think there can be some non-negotiable principles, for example I wouldn't really support a system that flat-out denied private property. I don't accept an absolute right of private property, but I do accept a moderate, natural right to private property. And I do think it's important to consider, for instsnce, how a system treats the family, etc. But I'm convinced that when it comes to most options on the table (liberalism, social democracy, distributism, etc... I don't see socialism or communism as real options, for example), I think the issue should prosaically be solved by pragmatism and standard economic analysis, even in a somewhat consequentialistic manner. I don't think metaphysical and ethical arguments can do much for deciding between the mainstream options.

    12. Miguel,

      But in judging an economic system don't we have to come up with criteria? In doing this we will inevitably delve into metaphysical and ethical issues. Even someone who thinks the only criteria of an economy is the proliferation of consumer goods is affirming an essentially ethical position. I think it basic to conservative and traditional Christian economic perspectives that they affirm a broader set of criteria, including the affects of the economy on things like families, local community, culture, the environment, etc.

      I'm expert, but I have done some study on the issue, and for myself I'm not standard neoclassical economics, much less Austrian economics, is an unquestionable authority on the real world economy. There are alternative (or heterdox) perspectives that have at least some things to offer in important places, and there is the empirical data, which I don't think neoclassical economics grapples (and the Austrians explicitly put it aside). Even on a narrow issue like the effect of minimum wage changes, I would take care standard neoclassical or Austrian microeconomic analysis as but one reference point in coming to conclusions, let alone on debates over free market capitalism versus social democracy versus distributism.

    13. That should be, I'm not an expert.

    14. That is correct. My point is that specifically metaphysical and ethical arguments generally aren't of much use when it comes to, say, favoring social democracy over free market liberalism (you could add distributism to the list as well, it's just an example), because I think those mainstream views don't directly violate, say, the dignity of the human person and its most fundamental rights. One might say, for example, that everyone should earn enough money to make a basic living without having to struggle - but then the issue becomes about how could a system provide for that, etc. It becomes a pragmatic issue.

      There are certain systems (e.g. full-blown communism) that I think can be rejected solely on the basis of ethical arguments, but I'm talking about mainstream ones, which I take to be different in this regard. And even for mainstream systems one can make ethical arguments, but I'm just saying that in general they tend not to be very effective (at least for me).

      I also think that, extreme individualism and egalitarianism etc aside, most people would look for the same thing from an economic system. They want a system that maximizes the well-being of society; that minimizes and alleviate poverty and allow people to make a good enough living so that they can pursue their own aspirations (which we hope will be virtuous, but that goes beyond what we can get from economics). So even though political discourse is packed with moral terms and arguments, at the end of the day most reasonable people don't diverge too much on what they'd like an economic system to achieve; the real disagreements are about practical implementation and so on. For example, people who are in favor of a Universal Basic Income often say that everyone should get enough to survive, period. Well, that's great, but pretty weak as an argument, because most people who are skeptical of UBI aren't against the idea that everyone should get enough to survive; they just don't think UBI would be a good practical means to achieve this end (they might be worried about inflation; how UBI might disincentivize work; etc).

    15. I largely agree. There is clearly an important role for the outcomes of different policies in considering their worth. I have sometimes thought, for dxexamp, that Distributists need to pay more attention to the free market capitalist claims that there system creates better outcomes (usually, in these discussions, meant in terms of the general prosperity of society and making the poor better off) than alternatives. Such claims would, it seems to me, forestall worries that such a system seems to be against the spirit of certain papal encyclicals.

      Still, as a conservative, I think there are other criteria on which to judge an economy than besides the production or, as is the case for many classical liberals, individual freedom (especially in the liberal sense of autonomy). Things like the health of family, local community, the culture; rural-urban balance; and craftsmanship are all as important to me. I don't think that our current systems, whether the more neoliberal or social democratic, nor non-existent free market or democratic socialist ones, come close to meeting these criteria. This is why I am a Distributist.*

      * Well, I say Distributist, as that is a convenient label, but I am not slavishly devoted to allall specifics of Chesterbelloc's ideas. I'm as influenced on economics (I suppose I'm more talking about socio-economic policy than strict economics) by E.F. Schumacher, Wilhem Ropke, Wendell Berry, and Kevin Carson as Chesterbelloc. I would say I am an economic conservative, although, unfortunately, for many today, that means liberal economics.

    16. Miguel,

      I'm not sure you're right about all the problems in Burke. But supposing that you are right on any given point, I don't think that American conservatives are required to "wear" Burke on that point.

      Just as modern Lutherans don't typically have Martin Luther's deep Marian devotion or rejection of artificial contraception as a sexual perversion, yet still call themselves "Lutheran," so too conservatives would be free to pick and choose if there were bits of Burke they wished to discard or de-emphasize. That would still be true even if conservatives in America had been started by Burke and called themselves "Burkeans" the way Lutherans were started by Luther and call themselves Lutherans. But they weren't, and don't.

      In fact, American conservatives most consistent reference to Burke is: "Burke was right in being horrified by the French revolution's failure to conserve intermediary institutions and pillars of culture." That's just about the only thing about Burke that a person calling himself an American conservative would have to hold, if he wants to keep calling himself conservative.

      Many other things Burke said might be viewed favorably by most conservatives, to be sure! But that doesn't mean every bit of Burke is de fide dogma for American conservatism.

      In America, the word "conservative" largely means "classical liberal who believes in Natural Law and advocates for Natural Law Constitutional Democratic Republican Government in conjunction with free markets and a familistic, patriotic, Christianity-friendly culture." To the degree that any parts of that definition seem contradictory, reconciliations and variations of emphasis are used to help them cohere. To the extent that any person rejects part of that definition wholesale, he departs from the center-of-gravity of American conservatism.

      And I think that's the way most social movements other than Catholicism behave. They don't have a Magisterium; they don't have any such thing as a living authority able to make rulings about dogmatic disputes now, yet unable to contradict prior rulings. Consequently the only way you can define them is in terms of their "center-of-gravity," a kind of looser version of the Vincentian canon: "That which has been held true by most of the folks, most of the time, emphasizing the most-recent fifty year window."

      If you think, therefore, that the center-of-gravity of American conservatism is wrong in some way, it doesn't necessarily make much sense to argue, "You guys got that from Burke; but Burke was wrong about that; therefore, you have to stop being conservative."

      What would make more sense would be for you, Miguel, to call yourself "conservative," point out the goods you're trying to conserve by disagreeing with Burke about XYZ, and then your presence would shift the center-of-gravity of "conservatism" towards conserving those goods.

      Come on in, the water's fine.

  3. The only thing that could have made this lecture better would have been if Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib were in attendance...if only for the exquisite schadenfreude which would have resulted if they tried arguing with Prof. Feser during the Q & A.

  4. I'm reminded of an argument that I believe Chesterton made. "Socialism" as in government involvement (there are several definitions) or regulation in the economy is inevitable. Either corporations will get big enough that they lobby the government in their favor, or inequality will get so severe there's a bloody revolution, or government can step in to correct market excesses and neglect.

    America's government spends just as much per capita on healthcare (if not more) as Britain, France, etc. In America there is just a class of middle men: Employers being subsidized to provide insurance, the insurance companies themselves, etc. They soak a lot of the money while giving the illusion of having no government involvement, and these are the same groups that fund organizations and politicians (like the Heritage Foundation) to go against big government healthcare.

    Conservatism should aim to have the economy serve the nation and family instead of the other way around. Our current course is just kindling for revolutionary socialism and Lord knows what else.

  5. Humans are naturally organized into three irreducible levels-the individual, the family and the city.
    The error of contemporary Conservatism has been to attempt to reduce the city and the family to collections of individuals. Thus, they are unable to intelligently oppose Open Borders, they are unable to intelligently oppose same-sex marriage and even abortion.
    The argument that "x is a private thing and how does that affect you" is all-overpowering in America solely due to the Conservatism's infatuation and infestation with libertarians, the chirping sectaries as Kirk called them so aptly.

    1. Modern Conservatism doesn't oppose open borders, same-sex marriage, or abortion. Conservatism is just as bad as Liberalism. Even in the religious field, it is cherry picking teachings that go well with the own ideology, but rejecting teachings that challenge this ideology. While Liberals are more, well, liberal when it comes to throwing out doctrine, Conservatives do it as well. The mind of the Neo-Conservative is in its essence Modernist. Only Traditionalism stands up for the entirety of Tradition, including coherent thought (Liberals as well as Ratzingerians or John Paul II Conservatives think of Vatican II as a new starting point for the Church, and disregard traditional teachings, while worshipping the Novus Ordo, Henri de Lubac, and many contemporary philosophies which perpetuate heresies condemned by the Magisterium time and time again).
      That is why, if I recall correctly, G. K. Chesterton was opposed not only to Liberalism, but also to Conservatism. I didn't understand that at first, but I do now.

    2. You're right. Chesterton was a real Thomist.

  6. Commanding heights of the national economy have always been coordinated with the State. It was true in era of sailing ships, it was true in the era of canals, in the era of railways and it is equally true now in the era of social media.

    So the anxious Conservative is apt to find the socialism bogey everywhere.

  7. The great social problem of the present time is not the fragmentation of the family - although this too is symptomatic - but the great social problem is the fragmentation of community and the destruction of the intimate social and spiritual culture, in favor of the domination of humanity by the abstracted and dehumanizing Power of the State in both its capitalist so called free form or in the form of various kinds of socialism. All the media of popular indoctrination reinforce this situation, especially television which is by far the most powerful socially formative influence in todays world, and indeed since it first appeared.

    Freedom from the Parental powers of materialist politics of the State is possible only if people enter into responsible cooperation with one another in free communities. In that case, the State can do no more than represent the will and strength of an autonomous, free, and responsible populace.

    So perhaps then it is not the socialist bogey that has created the fragmentation of such intimate and spiritual culture, but the now everywhere dramatized politics of competitive individualism. Indeed it could be quite rightly said that a "culture" based on the politics of competitive individualism is systematically working towards the destruction of both human culture, and of Earthkind altogether.

    Have you really read the news!

  8. I don't understand why Ed still clings to these Libertarians as if he hadn't read Rerum Novarum and hadn't written his book on Locke and hadn't utterly rejected liberalism. Libertarianism is obviously a gross modernist moral position which he knows full well. Attempting to save the party of weed, license, and leave me alone for Aristotle is the most quixotic thing I've ever seen the man do. It made more sense when I thought he was just holding on to good connections so that he could have speaking engagements, but at this point it surely must really be personal for him.

    1. Iwpoe,

      What on earth are you talking about? Did you even bother to listen to the lecture before going on this foolish little rant? I explicitly condemned liberal individualism, explicitly rejected libertarianism, and explicitly criticized conservatives who adopt a libertarian position, all in the course of the talk.

      I find it astounding that whenever I say anything critical about socialism, leftism, egalitarianism, etc. -- as any traditional Catholic ought to, and as all the pre-Vatican II popes did -- there is this weird little coterie of rad trad and nouvelle theologie types who accuse me of buying into laissez-faire, Lockeanism, classical liberalism, etc. None of which is true -- I have explicitly rejected all such views many times (and I haven't been a libertarian or a classical liberal for 15 years) -- and none of which follows for a moment from criticizing socialism, leftism, etc.

      Truly pathological. Try listening to what I actually say and reading what I actually write instead of reacting in knee-jerk fashion to these phantoms you are obsessed with. As anyone who has actually read what I have said about these matters in recent years knows, my views about capitalism, socialism, etc. are simply the kind one finds in Leo XIII and Pius XI and most Thomists of the mid twentieth century.

    2. I absolutely do not so accuse you, and I have continually and non-stop everyday for many years supported you among these so-called radtrad types and will continue to do so.

      What I said rather explicitly and I will say it again if it was not clear from the previous was that ***I do not understand the quixotic appeal of continuing to ask committed individualists to be non individualists.*** It is Bishop Barron at Google all over again: these people by their very arrangement and lives state their commitment to not be converted. They do not want these things. If they are ever elected they will not only not help to restore the Christian social order but will live lives and order policy positively opposed to it, and the only possible appeal of a libertarian approach to the state would be that good Christian souls might be able to come in behind them and shore up to Civil Society in their failure whereas a socialist state would put active barriers in our way. What I'm suggesting about your prior work is not that you agree with them, you clearly do not, but that you know they will not be converted.

      This is what I am saying: it is extremely hard for me to see how the Heritage Foundation is any more a friend to us than Google or the New York Times are. This is not to say anything about you or the content of your talk. The point is you could have given this talk anywhere, but the positioning suggests that it might be possible to move libertarians when it does not seem to me and it should not seem to you to be possible to do so.

      Here again and in the form of a question:

      ***What should we do with an audience that we foresee is unlikely to change their mind?***

    3. iwpoe,

      I don't know why you assume that the Heritage Foundation is a libertarian organization. It's not. Nor was the feedback in any way hostile, as anyone can see from the video, and as was true of the discussion that continued after the video ended. People either were sympathetic to what I said, or, if some disagreed, nevertheless tried to engage seriously with the ideas. So, whatever is the reason you've got your panties in a bunch, it doesn't appear to be grounded in the reality of the situation.

      Anyway, while I appreciate your advice as would-be booking agent, I think a better use of time and energy would be to discuss the actual ideas, and not fret over where I presented them.

    4. And by the way, the audience isn't limited in the first place to just those who were actually in the room. It's online for viewing by anyone, including those you think are more likely to be receptive. So, again, what's the problem?

    5. The Heritage Foundation, as far as I can tell, represents the general Republican consensus since Reagan. I called it libertarian because in practice that seems to be what it is: if you would like to call it neoconservative with religious decorations, so be it. That's a labeling issue. What I'm upset about is the 40-year trajectory of failure. This consensus can deliver me a tax cut but it has continually and increasingly not been able to defend the family in even a rudimentary way. I consider it in practice to be contrary to everything that you are doing: death by way of benign neglect. That's what bothers me- nothing that you yourself did.

      And maybe you're right. Maybe the audience doesn't matter, though I have always supposed that the Heritage Foundation channel has a different kind of distribution than the NPR channel which has a different kind of distribution than the Cato Institute channel etc. And I have always supposed that their hosting a speech implies a friendly and productive relationship towards us, which is what I am denying.

      In any case, I don't want to belabor the point. I'm already very regretful that I should even appear to imply that you yourself are guilty of any kind of neglect or moral failure in this respect. I am basically saying that I think they are hosting you and then going to continue to operate in a way that is totally neglectful of everything you are talking about. I feel like they trot us culture people out as decoration and then put us back in the closet as soon as it's inconvenient. That's all. It was a fine talk all around.

    6. iwpoe,

      This is silly and a time-waster and I don't want to belabor it, but I cannot let your unjust remarks about Heritage stand. They invited me, were happy to have me speak on the topic I suggested, and treated me very kindly. And they have always promoted the family and in other ways gone well beyond a narrowly economic approach to politics. Ryan Anderson is a Heritage Fellow, and I defy you to point to anyone who has shown more courage in defending the family and traditional sexual morality. So your characterization of them as some kind of enemy territory is ridiculous. I don't know how you got this bee in your bonnet, but you don't know what you are talking about.

    7. Yes of course. There's merit in speaking to any group. The Heritage Foundation's conservatism has nothing to do with Catholic social teaching or Thomism and it supports the conservative ideology whose variants are all problematic. I hope everyone there understood that after the talk.

  9. In case anyone else is interested, Thomas Behr's book on Luigi Taparelli is scheduled to appear in print this May: https://www.hfsbooks.com/books/social-justice-and-subsidiarity-behr/

    1. That's on topic too, especially since Ryan Anderson has been doing work precisely on Taparelli and the original conception of social justice he represented -- contrary to iwpoe's ridiculous and ill-informed suggestion that Heritage folks are somehow hostile to the natural law tradition.

    2. If the Heritage Foundation defends Edmund Burke without the necessary distinctions, they would be suspect of not belonging to the natural law tradition as Burke clearly did not belong to it.

  10. Thomism and it's interactions with the culture would be a great book. Anything political or social will in this climate.

    Have you thought of dealing with that controversial notion of mass immigration?

  11. Thanks for the illuminating talk Dr. Feser. In your estimation, is there any plausible way for Conservatism to reassert itself into the mainstream university academy given the decadent state of the current university departments? On your take, how important is the university to the formation of culture?

  12. Very good and insightful presentation.

  13. Is there a text version of the presentation?

  14. I didn't find Feser's passing critique of single payer health care particularly convincing. It's not like the other options are some small family oriented collective, but some giant impersonal insurace company. Furthermore, the problems with government provided insurance are not unique to government insurance specifically, but to insurance more generally. If anyone is interested in these issues, one would do well to read Paul Ewald's book L'etat providence, as well as Ericson et al.'s Insurance as Governance.

    1. There is an interesting discussion of this issue here: https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/2076?in=58:54

    2. Your options are a giant corporate bureacracy that answers to shareholders, or a giant government bureaucracy that doesn't answer to anybody.

      And almost no continental European country has single-payer healthcare, nor does any country of over 100 million people. The US government provides health insurance, through Medicare and Medicaid, to more people than live in any other English-speaking country. And then there's state-level government health insurance.

  15. You say that the purpose of the state is to facilitate and aid the family.

    Isn't the polis/civitas a good in its own right?

    Doesn't it have a mataphysical structure? Isn't actually prior to potentially?

    Isn't the states right to punish murder grounded in the dignity of every individuals life?

    Is so how can the family be basic to the society or state?

    Doesn't Aristotle say the the family exists for the sake of the polis and not the other way round? Doesn't Aquinas agree?

    1. The concern I have is about balancing civic service with the ordering of the family without advocating socialism or being against homeschooling.

      Traditionally and across cultures exemplary families seem to have a strong sense of civic duty that cannot be reducible merely to child rearing.

      If a father dies fighting in a foreign land is there not a very real sense that the body of the family has sacrificed its head for the sake of the common good.

      Of cause, I could be going down a wrong track intellectually or not have listened to the talk properly.

    2. This might be of interest:

      On the Transcendence of the
      Political Common Good
      Aquinas versus the New Natural Law Theory

      John Goyette

      Abstract. The article aims to articulate and defend St. Thomas Aquinas’s
      understanding of the transcendence of the political common good and argues
      against the new natural law theory’s view of the common good as limited,
      instrumental, and ordered toward the private good of families and individu-
      als. After a summary of John Finnis’s explanation of the common good in
      Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory, the article presents an analysis
      of the political common good in Aquinas’s Summa theologiae and De regno.
      This analysis shows, contrary to Finnis, that for Aquinas the political com-
      mon good transcends the private good of individuals and families, that it
      consists in the virtuous life of the political multitude, and that the family is
      insufficient to lead men to virtue apart from the civitas. National Catholic
      Bioethics Quarterly 13.1 (Spring 2013): 133–155.


    3. Connor, I have not read the article, so just a pointer that might assist. St Thomas says that the person exists for God, and therefore as a person the state and even the family exist to serve the end that he is saved, whereas the individual exists for the state, so that his interests qua individual are subordinated to the common good.

      In this distinction he moves beyond Aristotle, I believe.


    4. @Connor: Cite where in the Summa Aquinas says the family exists for the state. The state is composed of families as the family is composed of individuals, but they do not exist for it any more than individuals exist for their families. (Someone who refused to be a "proper" heir of the House of Aquin would not claim that!)

      Go to Google, and type in 'site:www.newadvent.org/summa/' and then a space after the last "/". Then type whatever terms you think will bring up texts that support your interpretation. I'd be very surprised if you find anything.

    5. @ Sophia's

      You can find the references in the article I linked. It's not something disputed among thomists as far as I'm aware.

  16. Doctor Feser, i was listening to this talk and as a venezuelan (that still lives in the country) i can give you some data on the status of the traditional family and religion here:

    It is 'odd' so to speak, you do not see any such thing as the feminist "woman's march" or massive gay parades here (thank God) but it's not that we are socially conservative by any means, here homosexuality is widely accepted (although not specially common at least when compared to the US and other western countries) divorce is common place and sex before marriage and contraception are FAR from stigmatized, most people are your christmas and easter only type catholics (except they DON'T go to mass on christmas nor easter! They most usually will consider themselves catholic, marry in the church and take their kids to baptism and catholic school but that is IT), also the younger generations like mine (i was born 2001) thanks to the internet have access to a more 'globalized' culture so to speak so we take sides on the culture wars,many of my peer express that they do not wish (ever) to have children, a lot of my peers are atheist while others consider themselves catholic but only in the way as described above (which is painfully the rule in Latin America), in my school (which is a catholic school) i'm often the lone person in the room who is willing to defend church teaching on everything, most of them also dont exactly know catholicism that well and have a somewhat protestanized view of it (not in the sense of saying look! Idol worshippers! But in the sense of thinking evolution somehow poses a challenge to the Church etc), and then again back to family issues it is all but uncommon for men to have children outside their marriages and cohabitance is very common even among people that are the age of my grandparents(read: born in the 40s, some in the 50s) as i told a progressive friend of mine once: If you think we are an even remotely conservative society you are living in another planet, also, the government (if you pay attention to the state channel) are often found promoting much more radical feminist and gender ideologies, it is rumored they plan on legalizing abortion and gay "marriage" (they haven't made too much sound on it since they got bigger fish to fry and most their supporters are very old people that may not be so receptive)

  17. We already have socialized medicine. It's called Medicare, which is quite in line with what Pope John XXIII said in "Pacem et Terris" and "Mater et Magistra." But I have a feeling Dr. Feser has no use for those encyclicals.

  18. Great talk. Decided to do a theological critique of socialism for my thesis and then came across this gem! It all seems to be a distorted means to recover some piece of Eden, but in a Pelagian mode - without grace, ignoring the stable brokenness of human nature (which capitalism uses to its advantage in the public sphere, outside the immediate context of family life), thus doomed to fail.

  19. To say that the main danger to the family from socialism is greater state intervention in the economy plus a greater degree of social liberalism than most (some?) conservatism would entertain (Heritage Foundaation talk), differs from Pope Leo XIII.
    He provides the context in Rerum Novarum: "that most deadly war which from the sixteenth century down has been waged by innovators against the Catholic faith... had for its object to subvert all revelation, and overthrow the supernatural order, that thus the way might be opened for the discoveries, or rather the hallucinations, of reason alone." It's a good definition of ideology, common to both the socialists and Edmund Burke.
    If the definition of socialism is merely heavy intervention in the family economy from society at large (Venezuela is cited as an example of this), then till the time of Burke himself Europe was a gigantic socialist entity. Most Europeans lived in corporate villages and towns where property was not absolute nor the rules of commerce "free", but heavily regulated. Members of the village corporation exploited resources on a family basis according to need but could not deal with such resources as they pleased. St Thomas Aquinas defended such a view of property and isn't known to have protested with Burkean ideological righteousness at such a situation. Today's Venezuela is economically much more laissez faire than 13th century Italy. The question of the modern state itself is another issue but its sovereignty is defended by conservatives too.

    This is not to say such corporatism can be revived. All the same, it's worth noting that our Holy Land was settled in the mid-twentieth century by mainly means of the moshav, a corporation modeled on the traditional European village corporation. It was far more successful than the collectivist kibbutz, and its corporative marketing and finance gave it huge advantages over the native inhabitants. The corporation is a recognition that the family is an imperfect society. Putting minnows in the same pool as sharks is not free enterprise or family values; it's the precondition for piracy.
    The reference to "natural law jargon" is unlikely to carry much weight either. Despite the anti-natural sociological aberrations around that seem to contrast so much with past practice, we have to remember that we are comparing things with a European society a few years back not so long removed from an era which acknowledged the revelation referred by Leo XIII. History tells us that non-Christian societies accepted practices and beliefs that were against natural law. There has been, in China for example, thousands of years of non-religious Confucian-conditioned infanticide and abortion.

    Sociological evolution might tell us something about the society of animals, but not humans. Contrary to Burke's view, the species is not always right. Individual reason might discover some things of a religious or moral nature unaided, but "general reason" (the basis for conservatives like Burke) will inevitably err to some degree because of original sin. How much of pagan religion was mixed in with garbled almost forgotten patriarchal revelation and how much was human imagination is anyone's guess but the Old Testament tells us that the Gods of the nations are demons. So much for sociological evolution.

    It would be a mistake to minimize the role of the state. To say that family values can be restored by a grassroots movement is not enough. The state should discourage what's wrong and encourage what's right. Salutary counsel and good example is not enough. Otherwise, one would have to be laissez faire on drugs.
    Discouraging the bad and encouraging the good applies to economics too. It's not socialism to have regular shark culls and patrols, without which the family minnow will never have a chance.

  20. Professor Feser, this was a fascinating talk. It seemed that you read it from notes or perhaps a draft you had previously written. If so, would you mind sharing it? I'd love to read over and think about it more. Thanks!

  21. The economic system Jesus lived under was Feudalism, which is essentially socialism, in that the government, not private corporations, directly run the economy. Yet he never condemned Feudalism.