TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

That’s So Liberal It’s Conservative

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at James Kalb’s “Understanding Conservatism and Tradition,” from Telos 124 (Summer 2002).

Let’s start with the punch-line: James Kalb informs us, in his article “Understanding Conservatism and Tradition,” that “the modern emphasis is too much on technology, on breaking things down to their simplest parts and reconstructing them in accord with human will. The problem with applying that approach to human life as a whole is that one can make sense of one’s actions only by reference to standards and realities one does not create” (164). In Kalb’s view, tradition creates these standards and realities, and is irreplaceable in this role. He compares the role of tradition to the roles of bureaucracy and markets, and he holds these three operative approaches as constitutive of politics, public policy, and life more generally.

Kalb explains that “[b]ureaucracy creates administrative structures that put things in order by deciding directly how they will be. Markets let order emerge from men’s dealings with each other under a regime of private property and free contract. Tradition accepts the arrangements that grow out of attitudes, practices, and beliefs that become authoritative over time in the life of a community” (159). These three approaches correspond with leftists, libertarians, and conservatives, respectively, and are not mutually exclusive (159). Yet “[l]eftists and libertarians attempt to grasp society as a whole by looking at it, so to speak, from without” (160). Kalb considers this impossible, as he rejects objectivist accounts of reality (163). He makes a case for tradition in that without it political or even ontological cohesion is undermined, as the soup of human values, attitudes, and habits would remain uncooked; social life and reality, indigestible.

Kalb acknowledges that traditions may be contradictory or serve to curb one another when he allows that bad traditions are “deemed so through other traditions” (163). He allows that the three modes of political operation occur in tandem with one another. He appears to presuppose, however, what tradition is and is not, but that whatever it is, it is primary. He writes:

The direct application of will to social reality through bureaucracy must accept the setting created by the unplanned aggregation of individual wills through the market, and the latter must in turn accept a larger setting, i.e., the human world created by the aggregation of human perceptions, experiences and habits through tradition.

Modern political life rebels at such necessities. As an example, “affirmative action” demands the forcible eradication of the practical consequences of traditionally recognized distinctions among human beings. The only differences allowed to matter are those based on economic function or bureaucratically-determined status. Age, sex, religion, family ties, and culture are to be made irrelevant to social status and life chances no matter what the social, moral, or economic cost. That demand is based on the view that particularities such as culture—the habits, attitudes, assumed standards, presumptions, ties, loyalties, and collective memories one acquires by growing up in a particular setting—should not matter, and if they do, they should be forced as a practical matter not to matter (164–65).

But may not equality and even the much-maligned affirmative action reflect some ultimate standard to which we’re all unwittingly, traditionally subscribed? It seems that the three operative modes of politics overlap more than Kalb lets on. He rightly points out that traditions inhere in any policies conceived by bureaucracies and even the market, as there is evidence of shared assumptions and agreed-upon virtues in even the most unobtrusive political principle. (Unobtrusiveness may in fact be quite equivalent to the types of principles more conventionally considered traditions; these more conventional traditions referenced by Kalb are, for instance, public honesty and stable family life.)

But for Kalb, what bureaucracy, or the left more generally, portends is the tyranny of so-called objectivity and professional authority, of scientific expertise (160), as it sets out to solve perceived social ills. He writes that “[t]he rejection of any simple principle for measuring everything saves conservatism from the radical elitism implicit in judging social institutions from above, and makes civic participation, rather than theoretical correctness, the basis of a good society” (161). But to whose civic participation does he refer and whose interest does accepting the status quo serve? We know the answer to both questions, and it seems quite unpalatable.

Kalb also notes that “[t]o accept tradition is to accept life on the whole as it is” (163). And in this particular work, he does not theorize change. Yet change occurs; its very temporality throws new challenges at us, practical and ethical, that time-tested traditions do not help us wrestle. What of advances in reproductive health such that produce up to five parents locked in a custody battle for a single offspring: the genetic, the gestational, and the social mother, as well as the genetic and social father? What of the climate crisis, the global character of which is unprecedented, the consequences of which are transgenerational, fail to remain localized, and no comprehensive law is present to address? Regarding these types of issues, tradition remains silent. Thus the question emerges: wherefrom ought social response originate?

Equality—such as is supported by bureaucratic institutions—appears to support the civic participation extolled by Kalb, and to be the only appropriate way to determine aggregate social response, if for no reasons other than utilitarian ones. This social response is of course driven by the assumptions and virtues inherited from society, and the bureaucratic agenda as Kalb conceives it enables the broadest consensus in an increasingly mixed cultural context. Thus bureaucracy makes its decisions by drawing on political, practical, theological, and intellectual traditions, although it is unclear if Kalb would consider these to be traditions proper. In as far as the bureaucratic approach may be equated with a democratic one, it necessarily reflects the traditions of its citizens. Equality may be one such political tradition, if we look to Cleisthenes and ancient Greece. That particular bureaucracy served the same goals that Kalb establishes for tradition in modern times: social cohesion. Thus it is problematic that Kalb plucks the principle of equality from the pot that is tradition. If, as Kalb maintains, tradition resides below the level of bureaucracy, then it seems that its various machinations may be, in fact, traditional.

But ideological might does not make right, Kalb argues (160). Some limits must be in place to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Incidentally, the principle that has protected or at least acknowledged the plight of minorities appears to have liberal, humanist origins, much like equality. Ironically, Kalb deems the bureaucratic process a socio-political phenomenon that lacks traditional guidance, yet as he points out, nothing occurs outside of social context. But in that case, from whence the principle that drives equality (as a species of democratic sentiment) in the first place? Regardless of one’s analysis of affirmative action, may not the sentiment that drives it be considered a traditional one in the sense that it has long been an affect of humanity, a factor in politics?

If equality is, however, a formal abstraction, then who should decide on the very universal (or universal-enough) standards necessary for theoretical and practical social cohesion that Kalb urges is necessary for operating in, or conceiving one’s operation in, society? I’m stumped when I ponder this question, as there is no traditional argument I could make as to any one person’s (or any one tradition’s) right to determine standards that could not immediately be countered by the same argument used on someone else’s behalf. There is no one tradition, after all. Given that, it doesn’t seem plausible that a consensus regarding anyone’s right to authority would organically emerge. Thus conflict appears inevitable and would presumably give rise to attempts at resolution. It’s not difficult to conceive that a bureaucratically enforced democratic process such that privileges equality (at least to the extent that one vote is equivalent to another) is not the only way to arrive at standards that may promote social cohesion. But the alternative—a libertarian-anarchic, pseudo-Hobbesian process—is not appetizing, and as far as the issue in question, may itself lead to the rise of nontraditional society—something that Kalb may prefer to avoid. Thus for lack of the ability to point to an objective or indisputable principle, bureaucratically enforced equality may be the best we can do. And for good reason: it has traditionally provided at least some measure of social cohesion.

Kalb’s commentary appears most durable where he acknowledges commonalities between the approaches he describes, and highlights the paradoxes inherent in liberalism and/or objectivism. I would propose, however, that we consider the possibility that the principle of equality is also traditional. Ironically, the first instance of democracy in ancient Greece, wherein one vote was regarded as equal to another, was arguably a ploy used to consolidate one leader’s power. The ploy, far from traditional, nevertheless served a traditional purpose: social cohesion in a time of fragmentation and military threat. In short, voter equality was the price of loyalty, as it well may be today.

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