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From Dust to Dust

October 18th, 2011 by Jim May · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

When they turn the pages of history

When these days have passed long ago

Will they read of us with sadness

For the seeds that we let grow?

— from “A Farewell to Kings“, by Neil Peart of Rush.


In discussing conservatism’s peculiar emphasis on local and state-level power, often under the rubric of “federalism”, a member of HBL termed it “this democracy theory”.  While this pernicious idea of “localism” is indeed usually advanced in democratic terms and in regard to (currently) democratic governments in the United States, in fact it finds its ultimate origins in a political context which is both anti-democratic *and* anti-liberty.  As those of you who follow me (@jimm_eh) or Yaron Brook (@ybrook) on Twitter may have seen, I recently wrote:

The idea that one fights tyranny by localizing it, is a long-standing conservative absurdity.

In fact, it has stood far longer than most modern conservatives would admit, if they knew — much longer, in fact, than America.  And when one shines the sharp light of ideological causality upon the context of ideas that underlie it, the roots of the absurdity are revealed to run deep.

The usual rationalization offered for localization, is that localized tyranny is “easier to fight”.  Unfortunately for conservatives, some of us know some history prior to 1750, and what lies back there ought to give them pause.  We have already had a period of history with multiple examples of highly localized and unconstrained authority, with a weak, nominally sovereign central government.  That system is known to historians as “the Dark and Middle Ages”, and its pre-eminent form of society was *feudalism*.  It was so easy to fight we only needed 1300 years or so to get out from underneath it.

Under feudalism, real power rested with the *local* lords and nobles, who were free to levy taxes and wage their own wars while the distant king was often ineffective outside his own holdings.  Notwithstanding the nonessential detail of localism, the Middle Ages were an important instance of a society based on the premise of the ruler (secular or Christian) as sovereign and individuals as *subject*, where the basic role of society and its rulers are as paternal caretakers of the medieval serfs who formed the large majority of the populations.

That is the principle against which THIS nation was born, in revolt.  And yet, it is exactly the sort of society one should expect to result from such ideas as these: individual men are base creatures, whose nature must be held in check by a paternal elite retaining moral sovereignty and acting in loco parentis, lest there be anarchy.  All of that is necessary, of course, because reason is too feeble to grasp moral truth; for that, ordinary individuals require religious faith, and the guidance of the epistemological elites of religion, without which we are all lost sheep — or wolves.

This should be no surprise, when one recalls that conservatism as we know it now was born in the remnants of clerical reaction against the Enlightenment, as it hid and regrouped in the epistemological space preserved for them by Immanuel Kant.  Modern conservatives’ emphasis on “prudence” and “tradition”, the hostility towards reason, intellectuality and “innovation”, its groundless insistence that there is no way to derive “ought” from “is”, the similarly arbitrary yet utterly strident insistence that without God, all is permitted — all of this is the ancient voice of Christian feudal cant, phrased in Enlightenment-ish terminology and still protected in its core by Immanuel Kant’s stick save against reason.  Put it all together — conservatism’s past as seen in history, and its future as shown by ideological causality — and the logic of the “localization” fetish snaps cleanly into place.

From dust to dust; feudalism and religious paternalism is conservative’s natural home *and* its ultimate destination, the magnetic north that the logic of its ideas inexorably seeks.  Localism, far from being a “theory of democracy”, is an expression of conservatives’ feudal origins, steeped in religious paternalism.  Even as it is couched in the modern terminology and settings of democratic government, localism’s goal is not to “fight” tyranny per se, but to localize and *protect*
 it from the constraint of the central government — regardless of whether said constraint is on behalf of individual rights.  (See “states’ rights” and its not-infrequent traveling companion, Civil War revisionism, for case studies of this fact.)  Conservatives will also insist that localism is set against “mob rule” or “anarchy” — but in their mouths, that terminology packages the incommensurable opposites of Leftist-style democracy and genuine American liberalism ( pre-Herbert Croly).  Those contemporaries of 1776 who immediately decried the radical new nation as anarchic, with “every man a sovereign”, were the logical ancestors of today’s “states’ rights” conservatives.

And, once again: you will find few, if any, modern conservatives who consciously know and pursue this (though they do exist; they tend to be most obvious at “First Things”).  Once again, it doesn’t matter.  The core of the movement is its center of mass, and its road goes where it logically goes, no matter the sincerity of individual travellers’ illusions about its end.  To the extent that any individual conservative actually does move us towards freedom, he does so despite his conservatism, not because of it — and so long as he does it, he is NOT a conservative.

” Move over, comrades, and make room for your latest fellow-travelers, who had always belonged on your side—then take a look, if you dare, at the kind of past they represent.”  –Ayn Rand, “Requiem for Man

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Inspector

    “From dust to dust; feudalism and religious paternalism is conservative’s natural home *and* its ultimate destination, the magnetic north that the logic of its ideas inexorably seeks.”

    How does that expression go, again? From rags to riches, and back to rags again in x years?

  • c andrew

    Hi Jim,

    Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute spoke at BSU on 9-14-11 about the upside-down Constitution.

    His major point was that it wasn’t a question of too much or too little Federalism but of whether or not we had the right kind of Federalism.

    His minor point was that, with very few exceptions, rather than being antagonistic to each other, the States and the Federal Government usually combined to impose controls and thwart liberty. The one case he cited, which he said was one of only two cases where the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had overstepped their Constitutional bounds, in addition to the plaintiff, only one state, (Either Arkansas or Alabama) supported the contention that Congress had acted unconstitutionally; 36 other states had filed a composite amicus brief supporting the government’s position.

    In our current system, the rest of the states are held ‘hostage’ to the most ambitious, regulatorily speaking, states in the union. Thus, California can get air quality standards imposed on the rest of the states; Eliot Spitzer in NY can impose financial regulations because no finance company can avoid NYC, etc. The tobacco litigation is another example of State Federalism leading to more regulation and less liberty.

    He made several points about how merely returning power to the States as a form of Federalism would not in itself, promote liberty. He gave several concrete examples how the States, rather than resisting Federal encroachment, actually welcomed it as a means of plundering the tax revenues afforded the State in block grants from the Federal government which in turn came from the citizens of other states.

    He then cited Madison in Federalist 45 and made reference to Madison’s idea of a Compound Republic as his model of Federalism. This is also the letter where Madison points out that the Revolution had not been fought for the aggrandizement of governments, be they national or state, but in defense of the rights of the people. [If only Dr. Greve had followed that thought to its appropriate conclusion.]

    He characterized our present form of Federalism as “Cartel Federalism” where the respective levels of government conspire together to encroach on liberty by expanding regulation (like the EPA’s current CO2 initiative being an outgrowth of Massachussetts suit against the EPA on the basis of trying to control their neighboring states CO2 emissions or the use of the minimum wage by union states to reduce the impact of right to work states on their own union wages) and to glean more money from the Federal Treasury. They use the bait and switch of “unfunded mandates” to cadge more money from the Federal Trough.

    He also pointed out that merely rolling back particular pieces of legislation, like Obama Care of Dodd-Frank (in the financial sector) would not solve out problems because those previous points were also subject to cartelized influence; and that entrenched special interest groups would fight tooth and nail having already sunk costs into compliance (or avoidance in those fortunate enough to garner waivers)

    Unfortunately, he then shows us his preferred Federalism which he distinguished as “Competitive Federalism.” And if you are thinking of the Libertarian model (Or Justice Brandeis – Laboratories of Democracy) you would be substantially correct. Regulation, morality including sodomy and homosexual marriage would be decided on a state by state basis. Roe v. Wade would be returned to the states. The ‘check of last restort’ would be the citizens of the state voting with their feet.

    I asked a question in the followup: “Would the post Civil War application of the Bill of Rights to the governments of the several States qualify as Cartel Federalism or Competitive Federalism under your model?”

    In return he cited Lochner (about state regulation of working hours for bakers) and said that he thought that contracts could not be abrogated and that the right of entry and exit (the right to travel in another Supreme Court Case from the Jim Crow South) had to be absolute. He did not specify other rights that should be absolute but did say he thought the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were appropriate.

    [Given that he did not actually address the question of the Bill of Rights being applied to the several States and that many “Federalizing” conservatives do NOT think that the due process or equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment legitimately apply the Bill of Rights to the States – they merely suppose that everyone must be equally subjected to the laws in question – I am compelled to assume that Contract and the right to travel are the only rights the Federal government is allowed to uphold.]

    My analysis is that he made some good points – much like Objectivists do – that is not the size of government but its functions that are important. He makes the same point about Federalism; it’s not whether or not there is more or less of it or that the State or Federal powers predominate, but that it be the right kind of Federalism. Unfortunately, I don’t think his competitive model is the right kind of Federalism. It’s almost as if the function of government specified in the Declaration applies only to the National Government, but, for pragmatic reasons (Laboratories of Democracy, you see) we won’t apply that standard to the states.

    His approach is pragmatic rather than principled and whenever he comes close to principle, he usually obviates it by recommending a pragmatic enactment of it. For instance, he recommends that we view the advocates of Federalism with a skeptical and selfish eye. That we look at their policies and ask what the likely outcome is and then as, “What’s in it for me?” Which leaves wide open the idea of using the power of the state to plunder others in the generic modern understanding of selfishness. And he makes no principled exposition of the concept that might lead you to think that his idea is that of “rational non-rights’ violating pursuit of self interest.”

    Now English is his second language; he is a German ex-patriate. So I will add this caveat; His books might provide the principle and context that would ground his exposition in a less pragmatic context. But until I get a chance to peruse his writings, it looks to me like he is another example of the libertarian leaning conservative who thinks that 50 tyrannies comprise more freedom than one tyranny.

  • madmax

    C Andrew

    Very interesting comment. You say this:

    Unfortunately, he then shows us his preferred Federalism which he distinguished as “Competitive Federalism.” And if you are thinking of the Libertarian model (Or Justice Brandeis – Laboratories of Democracy) you would be substantially correct. Regulation, morality including sodomy and homosexual marriage would be decided on a state by state basis. Roe v. Wade would be returned to the states. The ‘check of last restort’ would be the citizens of the state voting with their feet.

    As stated I would prefer that to today’s setup. There are some conservatives that are beginning to argue for the division of the country into two halves: a “red” half and a “blue” half. But that would do us secular capitalists no good. But a rethinking of federalism along the lines in the above quote, while far from ideal, would I think allow for more pockets of freedom than are possible in our current arrangement.


    Here is the way Larry Auster has described the feudal era:

    Now I’ve always been deeply attracted to the Middle Ages. But the communal order of medieval society was a divine order, organized around God and the Church. The stability of medieval society achieved its true meaning by pointing at a truth beyond the merely human. While medieval man could not readily change his earthly station in life, his life, his ordinary life, opened up to the divine at every point. By contrast, the stable order liberals seek is godless, centered around the guaranteed satisfaction of prosaic human desires.

    That is the viewpoint of a true 19th century conservative and its scary. I don’t think a Rush Limbaugh or a Thomas Sowell could ever say something like that. You’re right that the core contingent of Conservatism will drive the future direction of that movement but most of today’s conservatives are so far removed from this type of medieval worship that I wonder if we need a new term to describe today’s conservatives. I have been using the term “hybrids” but that really isn’t very descriptive.

  • Ashley

    Compound federalism, please.

  • Jim May

    madmax: ironically, the term “liberals” would be far more applicable to “hybrid” conservatives than to those who pass under that label nowadays (the term’s mainstream meaning is so completely hosed I wouldn’t try forcing that one.)

  • KFJ

    Perhaps the deepest impression formed through my study of history is that it is distinguished more by irony than logic. For example, surfing away from this post I find:

    “They saw what was happening to them as a repeat of the American Revolution,” Olson says. “The Mexicans were coming like the British as a centralized government — they were coming to take control — and [the men defending the Alamo] saw it immediately as Lexington and Concord. These men were fighting for their lives, their land and their freedom. It’s not like these people were trapped in there—they had a choice.”

    Of course, they were also fighting for their slaves (slavery having been abolished in Mexico). It’s also noteworthy that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveowner. These contradictions were left to future generations to resolve.