by Bruce Frohnen
Over on the First Things blog, Robert George has blessed us, yet again, with the conventional and convenient wisdom of (Catholic) neoconservatism. The post, titled “No Mere Marriage of Convenience: The Unity of Economic and Social Conservatism,” is a sustained argument for just how convenient this marriage of utility and principle really is, and why it should continue. Along the way, George likens traditional conservatives to the Amish, intimating their hostility to higher learning and economic freedom.
More than anything, George’s post reads like an application for funding from a Republican-leaning foundation. It is not helpful to his argument that he so clearly seeks to show well-off potential supporters how their own economic interests are tied in with his largely academic interests.
In what bills itself as a hopeful post-mortem on the recent elections, George pleads for social conservatives and small government Republicans to kiss and make up, recognizing how much they need each other in the face of a resurgent left. Indeed, when it comes to recriminations, “both sides should knock it off.” Now, civility is almost always a good thing, and when recriminations stop us from having a full, frank exchange of ideas, they are simply bad. But sometimes recriminations are deserved and necessary to clarify the character of positions and people who present themselves as our leaders. And sometimes it is necessary for a frank discussion actually to be frank, and to go to considerations of what we value most highly, rather than to consist of rather craven claims of mutual self-interest in the face of common dangers posed by the enemy without.
Most important, George’s attempt to paper over differences within the Republican party in effect furthers his career-spanning attempt to paper over the problems with his own doctrine: namely, that liberalism (or, if you prefer, Democratic Capitalism) is simply good because it happens to coincide, in his mind, with what he, following John Finnis, posits as intrinsically good. The doctrine is called “New Natural Law.” Many of us prefer to refer to it as “Non Natural Law” because it has little to do with that tradition of thought concerning the order of the universe and its moral implications with its roots in Aristotle and Cicero, its most extensive statement in Saint Thomas Aquinas, and its continued vitality most especially within the tradition of Christian Humanism. It is, rather, a watered down Progressivism rooted in Hume, Kant, and a consensus definition of rationality few actual people share.
George presents himself as the patron and defender of liberal democracy as the philosophy and system of individual rights, rooted in recognition of the “divine Author of our lives and liberties.” This specious deism is supposed to evoke the Declaration of Independence with its mention of rights coming from “nature’s God.” Yet we would do well to remember that, contraGeorge, rights as currently understood by our liberal Supreme Court and many if not most Americans, have little to do with any deity, and everything to do with the idea of a sovereign self, owing nothing to anyone or anything and with an intrinsic right to maximal individual autonomy in the name of justice. And the grounds of that justice? Much like the sources of the Basic Goods George urges upon us, it has been placed safely beyond question or discussion by a narrow vision of consensus that rules irrational or even insane attempts to delve beneath the surface of the putative good on offer or even show its subservience to a higher, more fundamental good.
In point of fact, as numerous historians, including Brian Tierney and Harold J. Berman have argued, the rights we enjoy did not burst full-blown from the mind of some philosopher who magically divined the Divine Will. They are the product of centuries of development rooted in traditions of thought and action, growing from an understanding of human nature and the development of legal institutions utterly foreign to George’s simplistic calculus. (Here I heartily recommend the first volume of Berman’s Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition to those interested in further reading.)
But I digress. My point is not merely that George’s contempt for history blinds him to the true grounds of the institutions he claims to value. It is, more importantly, that his supposed defense of the goods of social conservatism is nothing of the kind. For he defends, not the goods rooted in human nature and the order of existence, but the utilitarian throw-offs of our traditional social order.
George purports to defend three great “pillars” of liberal democracy—human dignity, the traditional family, and a fair and effective system of law and government. Yet, where the third good is, in his hands, an empty truism, the first two are highly contested today, in no small measure because of the rejection of a higher law understanding of society and the person in which he himself is engaged.
George defends his pillars by merely listing good things they provide. He urges, for example, that the family is our best means of providing health, education, and welfare. Such a claim is of no use, of course, if one seeks to defend the family against a feminist or gay rights activist who believes it is intrinsically unjust. A culture war occurs because there are fundamentally differing conceptions of what makes for a good society, not because people failed to notice the beneficial consequences of arrangements they find intrinsically abhorrent.
Of course, George is not speaking to feminists and/or gay rights activists. He is more concerned to win over those economic “conservatives” (the same people who fund Republican-leaning foundations) who seek to merely sit out the culture wars. This, he rightly notes, is foolish, because no economy will survive the breakdown of families and the virtues they instill. But can such a utilitarian argument, even if true, sway a utilitarian—particularly when billions already have been made off the establishment of the materialistic, work-centered, two-income household and its driving down of wage rates? Hardly. And the undermining of family life is taken by increasing numbers of Americans, particularly in the business world, as mere collateral damage in pursuit of the true goal, namely material-well being. George has no hope of changing any significant number of hearts or minds. At best he can keep the funding coming as he continues to present the “conservative” alternative to actual, social conservatism.
To the extent George bothers appealing to social conservatives it is in his assertion that human dignity and the traditional family are goods and abortion is bad. Gee, thanks.
George’s twin goals, here, are to convince Republican businesspeople to be less hostile toward social conservatives and to convince social conservatives to buy into a kind of virtuous dynamism he believes on offer from democratic capitalism. The source of this virtuous dynamism? As George states quite explicitly, it consists of a partnership between elite educational institutions and their funders among wealthy industrialists.
This tiresome self-promotion is nothing if not consistent with what we have heard for years from “leaders” of “conservatism” within the Republican establishment. Sadly, the “courage” ascribed to one who has staked out the position of “lone conservative voice” on campus by speaking out on certain fundamental social issues, without actually questioning the underlying world-view that leads to the culture of death, has diverted much conservative energy and support into establishment causes and away from worthier endeavors. The hope for a dynamic, virtuous society lies not with a non-natural law doctrine propounded at corporate (and government) funded elite institutions. It lies in the education and rearing of children in the continuous traditions that actually produced the American way of life now receiving, at best, lip service from our establishment.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.