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The Power of Philosophy

December 29th, 2008 by Myrhaf · 14 Comments · Culture

You have to feel sympathy for Richard A. Viguerie. He is a conservative who believes “The GOP Must Reject Big Government.” He notes a rising trend among conservatives to accept big government.

Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, complained in May to the Huffington Post that the greatest threat to the GOP is “this new brand of libertarianism” that says “look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government.” That, Huckabee said, is “not an American message. It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people.”

And former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, in a May column in the Washington Post, attacked small-government conservatives for believing that “no social priority is … more urgent than balancing the budget” or that “the state’s only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty.” He argued that small-government conservatism in that form cannot succeed politically or as policy; that it would be relegated to “the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored.”

In the wake of the 2008 election debacle, the attack has continued.

In a column this month in the New York Times, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard — one of the nation’s top conservative publications — called on conservatives to come to grips with the reality of Big Government. Big Government is inevitable, Kristol suggested; we should accept it and move on. After all, he wrote, “talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.”

Viguerie goes on to make an excellent point:

If, for conservatives, accepting the inevitability of Big Government constitutes pragmatism, it’s an oxymoronic form of pragmatism — one that doesn’t work.

But why, in spite of all the evidence that big government does not work, do so many conservatives endorse it? Why is Reagan the only Republican president in our lifetime to accept free market principles even partially? Why did Nixon freeze wages and prices, found the EPA, DEA and OSHA, and detach the dollar from gold? Why did George H.W. Bush raise taxes and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act? Why did George W. Bush pass the prescription drug bill, let Kennedy write the education bill, send spending through the roof and start the bailouts of big business that Obama will continue?

The answer to all these questions is: the power of philosophy. A person’s political ideas are determined by his more fundamental philosophical premises. For instance, if one accepts modern philosophy’s metaphysical premise that there are no absolutes, then one would be likely to accept the ethical premise of moral relativism. And if one accepts moral relativism, then one would be likely to advocate lenient punishment of criminals and redistribution of wealth. One would likely be a liberal.

In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff explains Ayn Rand’s philosophy in heirarchical order, from the most fundamental metaphysical premises on to epistemology and then ethics. He does not get to politics until page 350. When he does finally write about politics, it is a simple matter of applying the more fundamental ideas to society and culture.

Both libertarians and conservatives err in believing they can start on page 350 and establish a politics of freedom without checking their more fundamental premises. For conservatives this means a futile attempt to uphold both religion and capitalism — to hold both the morality of altruism and a political system based on individual self-interest. The more seriously religious a conservative is, the less able he is to justify capitalism’s selfish pursuit of profit. (See Governor Huckabee above.)

The original conservatives in the 18th century were consistent with their religious beliefs, upholding traditional morality and staunchly supporting God and king. These conservatives were the first opponents of capitalism. They wanted a return to feudalism. Hillaire Belloc, Richard Weaver and J.R.R. Tolkien were late examples of this type of conservatism. (In Lord of the Rings the Shire is a pre-capitalist English village; the evil Mordor has factories that belch smoke into the air.)

In the 20th century, with the left now Marxist, the conservatives became supporters of capitalism. Religion was at a low point in the first half of the century and was not taken seriously by most people. In the universities religion was dead. Intellectuals and academics were often atheist or agnostic, as many on the left still are to this day.

William F. Buckley made religion and capitalism an explicit package deal in the 1950’s, a time when right-wingers denounced “Godless communism.” The end of the modern conservative movement was written in its beginning.

With the prevalence of pragmatism in America, it is hard to persuade people that they can’t compartmentalize religion and conservatism and have the best of both worlds. They end up making specious arguments, such as, “Capitalism serves religion. It allows people to be altruistic with their money more efficiently than government.”

But premises do not work like that. If one is serious about his morality, he will want to see it in his politics. What dominated the discussion in the latest crisis on Wall Street? Relatively minor issues such as golden parachutes, executive bonuses and private aircraft. People could not turn their attention from the greed of the CEO’s; they were certain that selfishness was at the root of the crisis. And what is the answer to selfishness among CEO’s? More intrusive regulation by the state. The few conservatives who muttered in vain against government intervention were undermined by their altruist morality. In a crisis people look to their more fundamental ideas.

Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Richard Viguerie are fighting a rearguard action in hoping to return the Republican Party to something of a small government party. Religion has been on the rise in America for decades as people turn away from the black hole of nihilist postmodern philosophy. People need values in order to live fulfilled lives; they are mistakenly turning to religion for those values.

We stand at a dangerous moment in American history. Barack Obama, though he has been a pragmatic Democrat so far, is likely to fight for sweeping new interventions in the economy once he sees the ideological disarray of the Republicans. He seems to be a careful man who fights for what he thinks he can get away with. He might go for a massive national service program; if he gives it a patina of religion, the conservatives will accede. John McCain will argue that we need to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. National service is just one of many nightmares we could see in the years ahead. Environmentalist regulations against CO2, inflation and the de facto nationalization of big business could be in store. The conservatives will be rendered helpless by their philosophic premises.

14 Comments so far ↓

  • EdMcGon

    What religious people often forget is that if government can deny the rights of their neighbors (by confiscating wealth in order to practice “altruism”), what is to stop the government from denying the right to practice the religion of your choice? Or practice religion at all?

    People need values in order to live fulfilled lives; they are mistakenly turning to religion for those values.

    Religious values are like the old NRA bumper sticker: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Religious values are tools like guns. It is HOW you use them that determines your results.

    And just like guns, if you misuse religious values, you’ll end up with the wrong results.

    For example, can you tell me the difference between a secular Democrat who bases his politics on altruism, and a religious Republican who bases his politics on the Bible? There is none. They both go for the same results (as you correctly pointed out). They just use different tools.

    P.S. On an unrelated note, how about the Raiders kicking Gruden’s Bucs out of the playoffs? It took us a few years, but revenge is sweet. 😉

  • L-C

    Being consistent with philosophy is a bit like climbing out of a well. You can just about make it and still fall all the way back down in an instant.

    A lot of otherwise well meaning, productive people do it. They can, for most purposed, lead good lives, only turn around on a dime and support some form of tyranny. It’s not the lack of philosophy, but the unquestioned acceptance of unmentioned premises. Ideas will always affect you whether you choose to acknowledge them or not. And if you don’t, you’re at the mercy of anyone who is more consistent than you are, not to mention circumstances in general.

    Whenever I decide to analyze someone’s ideas, this becomes apparent. Not surprisingly, bad ideas tend to rush the fastest toward a vacuum.

  • madmax

    “But premises do not work like that. If one is serious about his morality, he will want to see it in his politics.”

    There is much wisdom in this. Conservatives don’t get this. I have heard so many Conservatives argue that just because the Bible calls for charity that doesn’t mean that this fact implies that the gov’t should do it; ie Christian charity does not imply the welfare-state. But this doesn’t wash. Ethics will determine politics. If you preach altruism as a virtue, someone (or gang of someones) will insist that it be enforced politically.

    Larry Auster argues this all the time, in effect saying that liberals – because they are secularists and therefore have a “reductionist” approach to scripture – misread the Bible and Christ’s teachings. True Christianity would not endorse socialism to his way of thinking. This is naive at best. In Auster’s case its alot worse. But this goes beyond Auster and his Traditionalism as most fiscal Conservatives make this argument and its worthless against the consistent altruism of the Left as we have seen.

  • EdMcGon

    Max, the problem with Christian altruism is the Bible’s teachings are directed at individual altruism, NOT collective altruism.

  • Myrhaf

    Ed, you seem to be arguing that religious values, like a gun, can be used for good. I don’t see what good can come from the metaphysical fantasy of a supernatural being, the epistemological fantasy of faith, and the ethical idea of self-sacrifice.

    But I am encouraged that the Raiders ended the season 5-11. That tells you how pathetic they were earlier in the season.

  • Galileo Blogs

    Excellent column, Myrhaf. I am reading a book right now (I didn’t get the time to put it in the “What We’re Reading” column) that fits like a glove into your commentary. It is “Crisis and Leviathan” by Robert Higgs.

    It is a survey of American regulatory history from the Civil War onward. Most of that period saw a ratcheting of government controls ever greater, spurred on by military and economic crises. After each one of them, such as the Great Depression, World War II, etc., government controls were partially repealed, but a new layer of controls remained. Moreover, the ideological justification for controls was strengthened, so that when the next crisis hit, the magnitude of controls imposed during the next crisis exceeded the level of prior crises.

    But there is a mystery in all this. During the Civil War, severe controls were imposed including an abandonment of the gold standard, the first imposition of the income tax, and military conscription. But why was all of this repealed within 20 years after the end of the Civil War, culminating in an explicit, legal adoption of gold as our money by the end of the century?

    Higgs also observes that the Panic of 1893 was one of the more severe economic recessions, akin to a mini-Depression in severity. But, despite appeals for the federal government to provide direct monetary relief to individuals and to debase the currency in an effort to inflate out of the crisis, why did none of this happen? Why was the President and Congress able to hold firm to a nearly laissez-faire approach, despite the pressure?

    The author struggles for an answer and vaguely pins it on “ideology.” However, the answer is clear. What strengthened the spines of our politicians in the late 1800s, and what weakened the spines of conservatives today is something very powerful. You named it, and that is what changed in the minds of intellectual leaders between the 1800s and the 1900s.

    The battle that must be fought is clear.

  • Myrhaf

    Oddly enough, I bought a used copy of Crisis and Leviathan last month. I have yet to read it — I have a bad habit of reading dozens of books at a time. I bought the book perhaps for the same reason Galileo Blogs did: the recent crises are leading to bigger government.

  • Chuck

    Garet Garret’s People’s Pottage deals with the same subject matter as the book Galileo Blogs is referring to, but is focused on Roosevelt’s “bund of intellectuals” (including the justices he named to the Supreme Court) who put over the New Deal on America, lying about it every step of the way.

    He also mentions the controversy over the gold standard, and whether to use a bimetallic standard with silver. This was evidently put to a vote of some kind, and Americans rejected it, Garret saying they wanted sound money.

    Roosevelt ran on a platform of sound money, and then turned around and confiscated all the gold in private hands, in another of his great deceptions.

  • Chuck

    Unfortunately, in today’s world, our Dear Leader doesn’t need to lie about a New Deal. Our populace is well prepared to accept it, even asking for it.

    The bimetallic standard vote I referred to in the previous comment took place prior to 1900.

  • Galileo Blogs


    I suggest you begin Crisis and Leviathan at Part 2, which begins with Chapter 5. That is the historical discussion. The first four chapters present the author’s theory of why the state grows larger and sometimes doesn’t in response to crises. I have completed the historical section, which was excellent, and have just begun reading Part 1 now in order to complete the book. I will let you know if it is worth reading.

    Part 2 does work perfectly well as a stand-alone review of the history of the growth of the regulatory state.


  • EdMcGon

    I don’t see what good can come from the metaphysical fantasy of a supernatural being, the epistemological fantasy of faith, and the ethical idea of self-sacrifice.

    I don’t expect to disprove the first part of your statement. I’ll leave that to God. 😉

    As for faith, I agree with you. Blind faith in God is for those without the vision to see Him in this universe. Frankly, I pity them.

    As for self-sacrifice, the reason for it is simple: It makes you feel good about yourself. Even secularists recognize this.

    Mind you, I only recommend self-sacrifice on the personal level, not on the government level. Using self-sacrifice as an excuse for governmental altruism is “passing the buck”. To those who suggest government should be altruistic, I say, “Do it yourself.”

  • Harold

    I don’t expect to disprove the first part of your statement. I’ll leave that to God. ”

    Which ones?

  • Jim May

    And just like guns, if you misuse religious values, you’ll end up with the wrong results.

    The problem is that religious values, being based on faith instead or reason, are completely arbitrary.

    They therefore cannot be “misused”, by definition, as determining what constitutes “use” necessarily involves knowledge of what those values *are*. Since religious values are made up (“faith-based”), they can be literally *anything*. All one needs to do is invent, choose or adapt (“re-interpret”) existing ones to fit the pre-existing “use” (read: wish or whim) which needs to be justified.

    Case in point:

    As for self-sacrifice, the reason for it is simple: It makes you feel good about yourself. Even secularists recognize this.

    The concept “misuse” is preposterously inapplicable to “religious values”, as the latter lack the required identity to determine “use” in the first place.