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innovationSo thanks to Carl for talking up Carson Holloway, The Imaginative Conservative, and civilized leisure.

Carson is also a forceful opponent of judicial supremacy. That is the view that the Court says what the Constitution is, the view that fuels the renewed focus on (libertarian) judicial activism. The Court does not, in fact, have to the right do that. Lincoln, for example, reminded us that he was, as our chief executive, mandated by the Constitution to enforce the Dred Scott decision, but that did not mean he or any other citizen or office holder had to accept Chief Justice Taney’s radically pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. This distinction, sadly, has been forgotten by Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has no right to resist a decision (not to “stay”) of the Supreme Court, but every right not to uncritically defer, at least as a citizen, to the interpretation of the Constitution that guided the federal courts.

Part of what might be called, from a classical view, the civilized leisure of free citizens in a republic is deliberation over what the Constitution means. That means, of course, having plenty of room for civilized disagreement and respecting the civic freedom of those who have lost this or that battle in the courts (or in the legislature or before the executive) to continue to attempt to persuade their fellow citizens and the relevant political actors to change their minds.

I am teaching Hobbes right now. He does not talk about citizens, but the liberty of “subjects.” It is the characteristic of a subject to ordinarily rather thoughtlessly defer to whatever the sovereign authority says, in order to secure the peace and get on with his comfortable private life. But, in America, the decision of the sovereign (sovereigns, so to speak, in our separation-of-powers system) is never final, because citizens have the responsibility to think about whether they square with what our written Constitution actually says—and, if appropriate, work for change in accord with their constitutional opinion. For Hobbes, free individuals should not make the mistake of thinking of themselves as citizens, because they are confusing themselves, at the possible price of civil war, with sovereigns. But, in America, it turns out that the people are the ultimate sovereign, which means that people have to find the time (or, from a productive view, leisure) to be about the somewhat risky business of being citizens.

Now, we live in a time when we have a rather uncritical or, as Tocqueville says, “indefinite” faith in innovation. Someone might say this is progressivism broadly understood. That progressive faith is no longer centered on the egalitarian hope for the evolution of government in bigger and better redistributive directions. One reason is that America is “graying,” and the cost of entitlements (let’s tell the truth, rather indispensable entitlements) for the old is surging, even necessary government functions, beginning with defense, are being starved as a result. The era of bigger government is over, simply because, as even President Obama sort of knows, we can’t pay for it. (That is why the old-fashioned [objectively reactionary] liberal Democrats sometimes call our president a Republican.)

And so the faith in innovation now centers on techno-libertarianism, or freedom from this or that constraint to be an unencumbered individual competing in the global marketplace. That progress has its upside, as it frees us from the residual burdens of being identified with this or that class or caste, but it also has the tendency to empty relational life of its particular contents. It is driven, as Pierre Manent says, by post-political, post-familial, and post-religious fantasies. One fantasy is that beings with bodies can live well freed from such institutional embeddedness. Another fantasy is that we could be happy as beings with bodies if we could dispense with such relational or “cultural” baggage. Too many of our libertarians think of citizenship as just another form of rent-seeking and so, for example, think of the immigration issue in terms of the supply of workers instead of responsible citizens.

So let me conclude by calling your attention to a fabulous little article by Gladden Pappin, our leading critic of our anti-relational and unironic techno-hopes. It’s ironically titled ”Lives of the Saints,” showing that today we are so relationally impoverished that we can think of Steve Jobs and the other Silicon Valley innovators as the functional equivalent of the saints celebrated in the past. And, of course, Peter Thiel wants us to replace founders of countries with founders of startups as our models of disruptive innovators. But the problem is (Thiel excepted, in some ways) that our new innovators aren’t distinguished by wisdom and virtue and don’t know much beyond being able to deploy the means of immensely powerful technical manipulation.

One problem with this “progress” in the direction of the banality of our innovators is that we now are left with the rather precise but ultimately content-free distinction between “creativity” and the “machine.” Machines allegedly give us more leisure to be creative, and so we watch more TV or find ourselves glued to screens in general. And reducing most human tasks to mechanical scripts and then displacing the mechanized man with the robot or whatever deprives many or most ordinary people of the worthwhile work that seems to be, in most cases, a precondition for finding dignified relational love. Creativity itself becomes contentless or nothing more than entering the pure realm of freedom from birth and death and all ties that bind. We know what being “transhumanist” is not, but don’t have the first clue about what it might be. What and why would a “creative” transhuman create? So we return to the issue of civilized or serious leisure—and its relation to action, personal faith, contemplation, the whole of higher education, and the truth about “being a person.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission. 

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1 reply to this post
  1. In the American Workaholic culture, it is refreshing to hear calls for sufficient leisure to address the important questions.
    This may be the first time I have heard liberal democrats referred to as “reactionary” (not that it hasn’t been mentioned before, but, being slow, the usage is new to me.). However, it fits.

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