December 03, 2006

Poor Standard

This article from the Objective Standard by C. Bradley Thompson epitomises the flaws of journalists tackling historical and philosophical subjects. Bradley Thompson understands that the Bush administration has increased domestic spending more than other administrations before him did- but beyond that his article is a farago of nonsense and distortion.

I want to take two claims in particular on.

Firstly he argues that compassion is a virtue that the compassionate conservatives acquired from Rousseau and that it is a profoundly anti-capitalist virtue. This statement is so ridiculous that it really needs little refutation. Compassionate conservatism owes almost nothing to Rousseau- Rousseau's vision of the state under the general will is something that has nothing to do with compassionate conservatism. Compassionate conservatism owes much more to the Bible and a reading of biblical teaching. The injunction to charity as a virtue (curiously our author thinks that charity isn't a virtue but a rational choice- quite how charity could ever be rational for the selfish egotist he describes a person as later on he does not explain) is medieval and dates back to a reading of the gospels- wherein for instance Christ says that the meek should inherit the earth. Compassion as a virtue stems less from Rousseau than it does from Adam Smith and David Hume who found within mankind the sentiment of empathy and grounded upon that fellowfeeling theories of morals. In Smith's view his theory of the market was supposed to hold up his theory of morals. Rousseau indeed was precisely reacting against Smith- Rousseau held that man could only be compassionate if society was negated and dictatorship installed- Rousseau did not beleive in a compassionate ego inside capitalism nor did he believe in moderate luxury- he believed in primitivism. It was Smith and Hume who believed in the market coexisting with morality and compassion.

Secondly he claims that neo-conservatism is an ammoral philosophy of anything goes in government, of using government to sustain a particular position within society and of using government to make sure the 'right' people rule. There is more truth in this- though his bizarre assertion that the Neo-Cons would have been Trotskyites in the 1930s, Liberals in the 1960s and Gingrichites in the 1990s needs analysis- I'm not sure personally that he understands the words Troskyite or Liberal, if he did he wouldn't throw them around so cavalierly. Also no proof is offered for this statement.

Back though to the second assertion- the idea that Neo-conservatism is Machiavellian is hardly a surprise. It might come as a surprise to our author that America was founded by Machiavellians. By people who wished to maintain a republic by craft as well as moral example. Go and look at the reasons why the US is built the way it is and in the Federalist Papers you will find reasons which are precisely to do with elevating the right people to power. Machiavellianism is not really neo-conservative- it dates to a far earlier trend in politics- made incarnate by the Prince- of literature which seeks to instruct a politician not merely in what his ends should be, but in how to attain those ends. In that sense William Kristol is the author of modern 'Mirror of Princes' literature, instructing Republicans in the how of politics not the what for of politics. He is right to say therefore that Kristol isn't involved in ideology but wrong to say that Kristol's project is neccessarily anti-ideological. In this setting that would be like accusing Kos from Daily Kos of being anti-ideological just because his interest is in the mechanics not the principles of politics.

I could go on- suffice it to say that this article's sloppy thinking allows its author too confidently to express an unbridled faith in individual rights. He is ultimately a monist, who sees the world in one way and reinterprets it to fit his vision. Beware such creatures, especially writing in journals and papers, their visions have a seductive simplicity that belie their factual and philosophical inexactitude. We have here both an error of fact and a category error- there are more- but they all originate from a sloppy piece of work to support a one eyed view of the world.


edmund said...

they're objectivists not conservatives- you need to understand objectisim to see what his saying , the terms compassionate and defily "ideological" mean something differnet for example , it's questionalbe whether it's worth the effort

Gracchi said...

My reading of the article though accused him of historical distortion- I stand by that accusation- maybe he should redefine his terms in order to make himself clearer.

edmund said...

it's because it's in an explicitly objectivist publication they don't need the same as say a marxist publicaion woudl explain lumpen proletariat

I think the history is probably wrong- all I'm saying is it's less wrong than it reads because the terms mean something slightly differewnt

Gracchi said...

Fair enough.