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The Enemy is Us

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Conservatives and the Individual

by Christopher Chantrill
June 04, 2013 at 12:00 am

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LAST WEEK ROSS Douthat helpfully introduced the New York Times faithful to the notion of “reform conservatism.” Someone had to do it. He did, I think, rather short-change the reformers when he asserted that “the crucial idea that conservatism ought to focus directly on the economic interests of downscale Americans has not exactly caught fire within the G.O.P.” That’s shameful, of course, given how heartily Democrats have advanced the interests of e.g., the green crony capitalists that make money out of high energy prices ruthlessly exacted on downscale Americans. I could go on. For instance, the Democrats insist on sequestering the savings of downscale Americans in “Trust Funds” so they can use the money for buying votes.

You can be sure that the NYT commenters would have none of Douthat’s helpful information on the reform conservatives. The very idea! They all knew, from their deep study of liberal talking points, that conservative ideas had been lost in a mean-spirited miasma of individualist supply-side inequality ever since the ill-starred years of Reaganite “trickle-down” economics. Still, I’ll lay my nickel any day on the truculence of the Washington Post’s highly-evolved commenters on Jen Rubin’s blog against the mild-mannered milquetoasts at Ross’s blog.

Of course the liberal line is founded on the old 19th century shibboleth of individualism bad, collectivism good. Back then they had an excuse because scholars hadn’t yet unearthed the true history of individualism.

And meanwhile folks like Ayn Rand argued that selfishness was virtuous.

One can forgive the Russian refugee Rand for her anti-collectivist fury, but the rest of us need to develop a more measured understanding of individualism to inform our public discussions. And since liberals won’t talk intelligently about the individual, except in a post Greening of America sense that, if a liberal does it, it must be evolved and intellectual, it falls to us knuckle-draggers to do the heavy lifting.

According to Huston Smith, the individual ego was born over 2500 years ago as certain individuals began to question the world of unreflective tradition with: “What’s in it for me?” In China this individual ego metastasized in the Warring States period, and after 500 years of egos warring all over east Asia it took a Confucius to invent a program of conscious tradition to replace the busted world of unconscious tradition and bring order back to China.

According to Robert Bellah, the individual emerged in the Axial Age about two to three thousand years ago as the “responsible self.” According to Max Weber, the individual emerged in the period of the Hebrew prophets, where the idea got about that each individual was responsible to God for her actions. Mortals would no longer propitiate the immortal gods to favor their tribe, but be individually responsible to the monotheistic Him.

Later, it was Christianity that used individualism to make the city work by emancipating individuals from their tribal loyalties and teaching them to develop trusting relationships with strangers in the marketplace of the city.

Just in case, God added divine justice as a backup to the new program to tame the raging individual ego into the responsible ego. The irresponsible ego might escape human justice, but not God’s justice.

In our own age the classical economists broadened the understanding of the responsible ego with the invisible hand doctrine. The Methodists boiled it all down to a mantra: Work all you can; save all you can; give all you can.

And this glorious achievement of the human spirit is what liberals want to tear down and utterly transform.

We can see how the left’s fatuous opposition of individualism vs. collectivism that started in the 19th century has missed the point. Individualism is not an ideology of selfishness; it started out as and remains a social thing, a response to the anti-social unrestrained ego.

Yet our liberal friends, particularly when found commenting in their favorite online newspapers, seem to be ignorant of all this. No doubt they are also unaware that their identity politics is as reactionary as fascism. (Hint: that’s because it is fascism). It is a reactionary return to old-fashioned propitiation, forcing people to bow before the powerful, Lois, to secure their favor and their free stuff. And this attack on individualism has not strengthened the collective, but provoked a resurgence of the unrestrained ego, only this time not in warrior empires but in urban city gangs and educated professorial cabals.

Why are liberals so rude to to the right” asks closet conservative Leften Wright in the Guardian? Maybe it’s because, as the song goes, they don’t know much about history, or biology, let alone the Lorentz Transformation, unless it’s spelled out in a liberal talking point.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures


German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Knowledge

Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital


presented by Christopher Chantrill

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