Monday, July 3, 2017

New Wine and Old Wineskins

Matthew 9:16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.

Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony have written a piece published at American Affairs entitled “What Is Conservatism?  They ask all of the right questions and draw many proper distinctions.

I am sure that you have guessed by their names the tribal roots of the two authors.  They belong to perhaps the only tribe in the west that is allowed to hold on to and write openly about the value of common culture and tradition. 

They begin by noting the great shift represented by two elections in 2016: Brexit and Trump.  I would add to this the similar sentiments behind many national movements throughout the liberal West.  They note that many of their conservative brethren decry this illiberal movement.  This causes them to note:

These and similar examples demonstrate once again that more than a few prominent conservatives in America and Britain today consider themselves to be not only conservatives but also liberals at the same time.

How often have we said that these are merely two branches of the same tree, with no real differences to be found?  Liberal conservatives such as these find their roots in John Locke:

It is to this tradition, they say, that we must turn for the political institutions—including the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—that secure the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right of private property; and due process under law.

“Foul” cry the authors.  Conservatism has its roots not in Locke, but in traditions that pre-date Locke by centuries.

Its advocates fought for and successfully established most of the freedoms that are now exclusively associated with Lockean liberalism, although they did so on the basis of tenets very different from Locke’s.

Locke’s freedoms were established well before Locke; more importantly, Locke’s foundations were drastically different and far more fragile:

Indeed, when Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, offering the public a sweeping new rationale for the traditional freedoms already known to Englishmen, most defenders of these freedoms were justly appalled. They saw in this new doctrine not a friend to liberty but a product of intellectual folly that would ultimately bring down the entire edifice of freedom.

The statement is worth reading twice.

Today’s self-described conservatives embrace this liberal foundation; there is no true opposing force.  Assuming its proponents even desired to do so, today’s liberal conservatism is impotent to deal with many of the political challenges facing the west today; these challenges are difficult or impossible to oppose with this liberal doctrine:

…liberal principles contribute little or nothing to those institutions that were for centuries the bedrock of the Anglo-American political order: nationalism, religious tradition, the Bible as a source of political principles and wisdom, and the family.

All of the freedoms that today’s liberal conservative embrace have their foundation in traditions that pre-date Locke by centuries.  And today’s liberal conservatives turn their backs – and even actively oppose – every institution that offered the only stable foundation for its principles.

In this essay, we seek to clarify the historical and philosophical differences between the two major Anglo-American political traditions, conservative and liberal.

The authors trace the roots to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with men like Sir John Fortescue and Richard Hooker (although they offer that even these men had earlier influences).  I have offered my version previously, here; in this, I trace these earlier roots to a time well before the Enlightenment.

The authors go on to contrast these earlier conservative traditions to the liberal tradition brought on by man’s reason.

Like later conservative tradition, [15th century Sir John] Fortescue does not believe that either scripture or human reason can provide a universal law suitable for all nations.

The cultural soil, apparently, matters.  Different cultures develop differently and have different foundations.  Of course, man cannot escape using his reason.  In this traditional view, man used his reason to apply traditional law to modern problems.

We are pounded with the notion that [fill in your favorite political system] can provide a universal law suitable for all nations.  Jefferson certainly believed this; today’s advocates for spreading democracy certainly believe this; communists believe this; many libertarians – especially on the left – certainly believe this.

For many centuries prior to Fortescue – I would argue at least ten – those who understood voluntary law never did believe this.  If it was even considered, I suspect it would have been looked at as folly.

…Fortescue argues that a nation that is self-disciplined and accustomed to obeying the laws voluntarily rather than by coercion is one that can productively participate in the way it is governed.

There will always be governance in any civil society (note, I wrote “governance,” not government).  Culture matters.  The more cohesive a society is culturally, the less demand there will be for coercion in governing (i.e. “government”).

The authors move on to “the great seventeenth-century battle between defenders of the traditional English constitution against political absolutism on one side, and against the first advocates of a Lockean universalist rationalism on the other.” 

The authors offer John Selden as “probably the greatest theorist of Anglo-American conservatism.”

Selden played a leading role in drafting and passing an act of Parliament called the Petition of Right…

In this petition, one will find many of the “rights” declared in the Bill of Rights – all before Locke was even born.  These rights were not defended based upon some man-made concept of universal reason, but on traditions traced to the Bible and, I suggest, made manifest in European thinking during the Germanic Middle Ages.

… Selden argues that, everywhere in history, “unrestricted use of pure and simple reason” has led to conclusions that are “intrinsically inconsistent and dissimilar among men.”

Selden, like Fortescue before him, declares that a universal system of rights developed by man’s reason and applicable to all was impossible.  How could it be otherwise?  Is not our reason shaped by our environment, in the broadest sense of the term?  Are we now to insist that all environments are created equal?

Selden looks to tradition and custom, but he does not hold to it blindly; in this, he carries on the idea of looking to law that is both old and good.  The law develops through a system of trial and error over multiple generations; and each nation builds its own tradition based on its own experiences.

Note that law developed via trial and error; “error” being the key.  This flies in the face of today’s law – which recognizes precedent and rarely discards precedent, no matter how damaging the precedent.

Attacks against these positions came from two sides: those who advocated for absolute monarchy (ultimately labeled “the right”) and those who advocated along the lines of Lockean liberalism (ultimately labeled “the left”).  As is often the case, we find that there are not just two possible choices – after all, these two sides were “right” and “left” of something.

I find this observation by the authors very noteworthy and clarifying.  I have for some time understood that libertarians and communists share some common philosophical roots, for example, regarding the dangers of authority; classical liberals and modern liberals share common roots as well, most notably in the dangerous phrase “all men are created equal.”

You are either an absolutist or a liberal; there is no possibility of a third way, of suggesting a return to the foundation – or even that a foundation exists.  It is a view which allows today’s modern liberals to place Brexiteers and Trump supporters on the same side as Nazis.

In both cases (libertarian / communist and classical / modern liberal), are the two branches merely different reactions to the same foundation, that of conservatism as described in the subject essay?

The authors go on to examine why Locke’s liberalism was so troubling to those who held to the traditional view; they explain how Locke’s ideas were rejected at the time in England, but embraced in France (we saw how that turned out); we come to understand how Burke can be, somehow, embraced by both the left and the right (because Burke built on the traditions that existed before Locke to come to similar conclusions, but built on a more secure foundation).

The authors offer five principles that they find in traditional conservatism: Historical Empiricism, Nationalism, Religion, Limited Executive Power, Individual Freedom.  The authors contrast these with today’s liberal world. 

They go on to develop the continuing history.  It is a history worth reading without my further efforts to summarize; further, the authors offer a damning critique for much of the dogma offered by those who propose that their political philosophy (whether social democracy, communism, or libertarianism) is applicable to all mankind.

There is much with which I take issue in the subject essay; this does not diminish its value regarding certain invaluably key points.


Locke poured new wine into old wineskins.  That wineskin is finally bursting.


  1. I appreciate your arguments about the importance of culture in any form of governance. It has taken a while, but slowly, you are converting me from a strict "NAP-NAP-NAP" to someone that tries to view the NAP through a cultural lens.
    But one of my big hang ups is the fact that the wrong culture can be much more repressive of "human rights" (needs definition) than a coercive government. I think some aspects of human life has to boil down to right and wrong, regardless of culture. Just because a culture arises that considers the stoning of adulterers old and good, doesn't mean that it IS old and good. I think there has to be some level of an absolute ethic that applies to all humans across all times and locations.
    What do you consider the proper balance of NAP and culture, and how does that occur in reality? It seems that you are very sympathetic to the NAP in a christian culture, but like any religion and religious text, it can be interpreted and applied in many ways- not all of them conducive to the protection of human/property rights.

    I apologize if I am misrepresenting your argument. I am by no means a professional philosopher - but I would appreciate your feedback.

    1. “But one of my big hang ups is the fact that the wrong culture can be much more repressive of "human rights" (needs definition) than a coercive government.”

      I agree with this, and at times in my writing have made a distinction to the effect “a certain culture” or some such.

      I cannot speak with knowledge regarding cultures / religions outside of what is commonly understood as Judeo-Christian. It does seem to me, from all of my reading, that the one culture that has brought forward the ideas of voluntary governance, etc., is the one born from this tradition.

      “Just because a culture arises that considers the stoning of adulterers old and good, doesn't mean that it IS old and good.”

      Cultures evolve over time. When this is done through reasonably voluntary / market derived methods, I find this to be a good thing. When this is done by force, as we see today with the forcing upon the west of cultural Marxism (although I refer to it as cultural Gramsci-ism) and the forcible immigration policies, this is a bad thing.

      During the European Middle Ages, slavery was virtually abolished (yes, they had serfs, but serfs were most definitely not slaves) – slavery did not long survive the fall of Rome. Even though slavery was “old” culture, it was not deemed “good.”

      This offers, perhaps, one example toward your point about stoning.

  2. "...each nation builds its own tradition based on its own experiences."

    Suppose a nation (in the cultural sense) has developed a tradition that is not conducive to libertarianism - however broadly defined - but most people in that nation were happy with that tradition. And the ones who weren't still wouldn't give up their nationhood on account of a flawed system of politics or law, because it would mean giving up their allegiance to their kinsmen. I'm not talking about a super-state like the US, but something smaller, more culturally/historically homogeneous. Would this necessarily be a bad thing, from a libertarian perspective? What we would define as rights may be violated as part of their traditions, but the people aren't that upset about it (or don't even consider it a right in the sense that we libertarians do).

    Should the goal of libertarians be to create libertarian nations? Or should the goal simply be to let people develop, improve, and enjoy their own cultures?

    I'm not asking rhetorically. I don't know the answer.

    1. “Would this necessarily be a bad thing, from a libertarian perspective?...Should the goal of libertarians be to create libertarian nations? Or should the goal simply be to let people develop, improve, and enjoy their own cultures?”

      One of the eye-opening things I read on this issue was from, I believe, Ryan McMaken at the Mises Institute. I might be paraphrasing, but the way I describe it is: Libertarianism in theory is decentralization in practice.

      We don’t get “perfect” in a market. What we get is choice – a vast array of choice. So why expect “perfect” from a political philosophy?

      We live in a world made up of imperfect humans. We don’t get “perfect.” For me, libertarianism put into practice means decentralization – more choice, lower levels of political power and authority, etc. In practice, we will make compromise – and where we compromise is an individual’s choice; value is subjective.

      But as long as the available choices are ever increasing, those compromises will be fewer and fewer.

      If I have not fully addressed your questions, let me know.

    2. Indeed. Decentralization is always what I come back to.

    3. Yes, McMaken's comment was excellent and well used in this context. Excellent write up BM.

  3. I've always understood nationalism is more properly placed in the left wing, and I don't find what they say here convincing. Most everything I've ever read about nationalism traces it to German philosophical heirs of Kant and the French revolution. It strikes me as odd that conservatives would latch on to it, considering that it quickly became the most powerful political force in Europe, and swept away all the old institutions, customs and freedoms they claim to want to preserve. Though I've never read Fortescue, he's writing well before these events, and nationalism as understood in the philosophic tradition I just mentioned has specific characteristics that typically make it incompatible with monarchy, for example, which was one of the reasons it emerged in the French revolution. So I would challenge their placement of nationalism as a traditional conservative value, as I understand nationalism, but I understand these days nationalism is meant by some to mean controlled borders, and not political nationalism as understood for the last two hundred years.