The New Clarion

The New Clarion header image 2

It’s a Trap! The Conservative Triangle

May 29th, 2011 by Jim May · 7 Comments · Uncategorized


In my previous writings on the topic of ideological causality, I have emphasized the “end of road” of an idea and/or of ideologies, as determined not by one’s intentions, but by the logic and flow of these ideas.  Even a completely passive-minded individual does not sit still; he will still drift slowly, “downhill”, towards its destination.

Today, I will sketch out the flow of ideas with a “triangle”, going both ways along the conservative road.  I start with an article by one conservative and work backwards (or “uphill”) to its root premises — and then logically back “downhill” to another article, by another conservative, which is superficially unrelated, but fundamentally trapped within the same premises.


The first article is by Walter Russell Mead (via Instapundit), which examines the idea of California as a “failed state” in light of the recent Supreme Court decision mandating a mass release of prisoners.  The article has many trenchant observations, enmired in an utterly absurd thesis: that the problem with California is that it is too diverse, due to being too large, and that the solution is to “break it up”:

“The only hope I can see is to break it up.  California’s core problem is that it has outgrown the constitutional model we have for it.  California is too populous, too diverse, too complicated to flourish as a single state.  Unless we carve this beast into something like five more compact and manageable states, Californians will never have decent representative government at an affordable price.”

This is an expression of a rather dumb idea, sometimes expressed by Leftists but much more prevalent among conservatives: the notion that a large, diverse population is somehow more difficult to govern than is a smaller and/or culturally homogeneous one, and if large enough becomes “ungovernable”.  As any Objectivist knows (and this one even has pictures), the primary driver of government complexity is its involvement with an ever-increasing breadth of issues.  A sharp divergence or disagreement among the populace over a particular issue need not concern a government that is uninvolved with it; it’s only concern is to ensure that nobody comes to blows over it.  It is only the octopodian regulatory state, with its tentacles extending anywhere they please into private matters, which finds itself dealing with so many contradictory and conflicting demands.  Faced with this inherent hostility of statism (including the democratic form) to individual diversity, Mead’s answer is not to reject it, but simply to treat it as a given and balkanize it — to break up large states into small fiefdoms of culturally (if not racially) more homogeneous communities.

The second article is this one by Matt Patterson at Pajamas Media.  Patterson echoes a different idea which has always been visible amongst conservatives, but is very popular at the moment due to the recent release of the book “The Great Stagnation” by Tyler Cowen.  The thesis of the book is that the prosperity that mankind has enjoyed since the early 19th Century has less to do with any sort of effort of the mind (least of all that of a small group of men who “snatched a nation from the jaws of history at the last possible moment”, as Leonard Peikoff put it) than it does with “low hanging fruit”, i.e. good luck.  As Patterson writes:

“In his penetrating new book The Great Stagnation, economist Tyler Cowen warns that this [the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution] may have been a temporary and anomalous phenomenon. Cowen calls the period from roughly the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries the era of “low hanging fruit.” According to Cowen, technological advances in this period were relatively easy to produce and exploit, resulting in a staggering explosion of living standards.” (Emphasis mine.)

Patterson then leaps from there to the edge of Luddism, but the greatest sin is Cowen’s; he sweeps aside the explosion of productive genius and innovation over the last two hundred years as mere “low hanging fruit”.  (Why were “advances in this period” so “relatively easy to produce and exploit”?  What took us so long?  What was so special about that period as compared to the ones before — and the ones to come?)

You can probably already detect one common premise between Mead and Cowen/Patterson:  the premise that the effort and results of man’s mind — ideas — is only a minor input into the course of history, if it makes a difference at all.  Mead and Cowen/Patterson all operate on the premise that the true ruler of men’s lives is something beyond their control.  Where Mead’s grasp of government, in the context of his solution, stops at the concrete-bound notion of physical size, Cowen and Patterson turn blind eyes to the brilliant burst of human innovation and consequent prosperity which was the Industrial Revolution, and mutter in the pleasant but fading warmth: “Boy, wasn’t that something?  Too bad it won’t last.”

Let us follow ideological causality — first uphill, than down — to discover in greater detail how these two conservative viewpoints are causally related.

Mead:  California fails because it’s too big to be a single state.

This follows from:  the conservative idea that to fight tyranny is to localize it, i.e. that collectivism is OK when it’s small, homogenous and local. See “states’ rights” and the emphasis on decentralization (rather than abolition) of government power.

This follows from: conservatism’s fundamentally primitivist approach to political organization.  Conservatives tend to idealize certain aspects of primitive society, favoring those historical examples involving small villages and towns, with a strong, local and paternal moral authority.  In the West, these examples are found prior to the Enlightenment, and are called “feudalism”. (I didn’t say “fiefdoms” above, without reason.)

This follows from: The malevolent universe premise together with the “innately depraved” view of mankind.  This combination sanctioned and guided the foundations of feudal society — first, as people banded together to swear allegiance to powerful warlords in return for their protection from other such warlords and from the nasty, brutish world beyond the walls which they were helpless to deal with or comprehend — and in the view of these people by their nobler “betters” as being little better than animals, baseborn, morally untrustworthy and in need of moral guidance, containment and husbandry by these lords, in the name of God.

This follows from: the dominance of the Christian Augustinian metaphysics in core conservatism.

Now we are at the source.  Now let’s go back downhill, following the same logical steps, but to a different expression of the same core ideas.

Starting from: Augustinian Christian metaphysics

Which holds:  The malevolent universe premise, which holds that misery and failure is mankind’s normal condition, due to his (sinful, fallen) nature.

Which leads to:  The view that happiness or enjoyment in this world is the exception, not the norm, and is therefore at odds somehow with man’s nature — it is an aberration, a deviation, a temporary anomaly

Which leads to:  The view that such deviations, being abnormal, must be a function of external causes outside our control: also known as “luck” (or God)

Which leads to:  the expectation that whatever those inscrutable, causeless forces are, we have no reason to expect that they won’t causelessly reverse themselves tomorrow

Which leads to Cowen:  boy, haven’t we been lucky for two centuries!

And that leaves Patterson:  “That luck has got to run out soon.”

And there you have a demonstration of just how locked into a certain ideological path both of these men are — how the logical causality of their ideas both blinds them to its existence, and traps them in thrall to it.  This is just a rough sketch, of course; it would take more time and effort than is suitable for a mere blog post to document in greater resolution.  But it is eminently doable.  I leave to the reader the exercise of noting the multiple intersections between these two paths, filling in the Conservative Triangle in which these men are trapped.

One example: the “luck” worldview, also known as (divine) “providence”, is pivotal to the feudal culture — and the rise of the secular Enlightenment, with its antithetical reliance on Aristotelian causation, is the cause of its demise.

One can even “color outside the lines” and observe how unremarkable the conservative fetishization of the “primitivist approach to political organization” would appear when found along a Leftist road.

Understanding ideological causality is the beginning of the process to understand and bring principled comprehension to the flow of history and of human culture — and the human condition.  It works for cultures and nations, as well as it does for a single person.  There is so much more depth to this process of detection, of following not only the logical lines of thought that occur to us today when examining these ideas, but also of tracing the lines of thought that DID occur in history, as evidenced in the writings and actions of men throughout history.

While there are a few Leftists who are aware of it (the modern-day rank and file is too intellectually destroyed to notice), there are no conservatives who know it; conservatism’s fundamental mistrust of reason forces them to reject a priori any consideration of its true power.  A conservative who is truly aware of ideological causality as being anything more than a minor driver of men and of history, ceases to be a conservative.  When confronted with it, they tend to get extremely and overtly irrational, essentially unhinged, and hostile.  I cite as evidence the infamous Whittaker Chambers hatchet job, and multiple recent equivalents.  It’s almost amusing to watch; when confronted with Ayn Rand, many conservatives cast about for the nearest hyperbole that’s handy, and whip it at us; often, these are completely arbitrary assertions of ideological causality — “A.R’s ideas will lead to gas chambers/universal murder/Justin Beiber” or some such.   But once that’s done, they’ve shot their wad.  Past that point, to add apparent substance to their loony claims, they would have to fabricate the kind of causality I outline here, and to do that they would have to grasp said causality.  For a conservative, there be dragons.

While the following quote speaks more to Cowen rather than Mead, I close with it in rejection of their common distrust of ideas — and consequent evasion of their power.

“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”  — Lazarus Long, from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” (via Wikiquote)

7 Comments so far ↓

  • rnbram

    Well, they did eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and have tried to make up for their sin ever since — & very successfully so!

  • c andrew


    I’ve often thought that the conservative shibboleth of tradition is their equivalent of the Leftist “Precautionary Principle” to be invoked whenever their limited conceptual capacity is exceeded and as an unassailable argument.

  • Ashley

    Well done, Jim.

    I had one small quibble:

    “emphasis on decentralization (rather than abolition) of government power.”

    Wouldn’t limitation be better than abolition here?

  • BS Footprint

    Nicely done. The conservative distrust of reason and rationality permeates their very being.

    (I’m not too thrilled with the so-called ‘liberal’ mindset, either.)

    Congratulations! You’re in the B.S. Footprint Blog Roll. 😀

  • Jim May

    Ashley: in the global sense, yes, as there lies the disagreement between Objectivism and anarchism. From where we stand, however, abolition is the right word in so many particular cases… and “limitation” could have been construed as being compatible with the status quo — e.g. there is still private medical practice permitted in the U.S., the government presence isn’t 100% so it limited.

  • Inspector


    This is a gem you’ve created here. I was Especially entertained by the wit at the end.

  • The Murder of the American Experiment — The New Clarion

    […] but not surprised, to find that it was authored by a conservative — and one that I have already fisked before, here at The New […]