Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Conservatism and the Iraq War

In Darwinian Conservatism, I assume a "fusionist" view of conservatism as combining a libertarian emphasis on liberty and reason and a traditionalist emphasis on order and tradition. Timothy Sandefur and others have criticized me for this by claiming that libertarians and traditionalists are not in the same camp at all. But I have argued that libertarian conservatives and traditionalist conservatives agree in their realist view of human nature and ordered liberty, and that Darwinian science supports that conservative realism.

A good illustration of this is how libertarians and traditionalists agree in their realist view of foreign policy as opposed to the utopian idealism of "neoconservative" foreign policy. The folly of the American war in Iraq vindicates conservative realism and exposes the flaws of neoconservative idealism.

Consider the following passage from Russell Kirk's essay "Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom" (published in What Is Conservatism?, edited by Frank Meyer, in 1964):

"To impose the American constitution upon all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription. Without the legal institutions, rooted in common and Roman law, from which it arose, the American constitutional system would be unworkable. Well, take up this constitutional system, abstractly, and set it down, as an exotic plant, in Persia or Guinea or the Congo, where the common law (English style) and the Roman law are unknown, and where the bed of justice rests upon the Koran or upon hereditary chieftainship--why, the thing cannot succeed. Such an undertaking may disrupt the old system of jsutice, and may even supplant, for a time; but in the long run, the traditional morals, habits, and establishments of a people, confirmed by their historical experience, will reassert themselves, and the innovation will be undone--if that culture is to survive at all."

This is one of the fundamental insights of traditionalist conservatism: since social order must evolve out of the habits and customs of a people over a long time, it is foolish to try to impose on a people some abstract conception of order that is utterly foreign to their local traditions. Conservatives appeal to universal principles of reason, but they see this--in Frank Meyer's words--as "reason operating within tradition."

Murray Rothbard--in an essay on Meyer--criticized this stress on tradition as contrary to his libertarian principles, because libertarians want to appeal to abstract principles of liberty that allow them to judge social traditions as good or bad. And yet, even Rothbard acknowledged the importance of customary order. As opposed to the artificial order imposed by a centralized state, Rothbard thought that liberty was better secured by local communities that enforce norms of cooperation through customary traditions. He often cited the history of "stateless societies" like ancient Ireland as showing how legal order could arise through voluntary agreement as manifested in customary norms that expressed the moral experience of the community. And for that reason, Rothbard defended an isolationalist foreign policy, because he denied that an imperialistic foreign policy could succeed in promoting free institutions that were not rooted in the local traditions of a people.

To see how conservative social thought combines reason and tradition, we need to understand how social order arises as the product of three kinds of order: natural order, customary (or habitual) order, and rational (or deliberate) order. This analysis of order as natural, customary, and rational was first stated by Aristotle and later adopted by philosophers such as Cicero and Thomas Aquinas. It is also implicit in Darwin's account of the human moral sense.

We should see a three-level nested hierarchy in which custom presupposes nature, and reason presupposes both nature and custom. The fully developed order in a community or an individual arises as the joint product of natural propensities, the development of those propensities through habit or custom, and the rational deliberation about those propensities, habits, and customs.

This same trichotomy of order is implicit in Darwin's biological account of the human moral sense. As naturally social animals, human beings are endowed with social instincts, so that they feel a concern for others and are affected by social praise and blame. As animals capable of learning by habit and imitation, human beings will develop habits and customs that reflect the social norms of their community. And as intellectual animals, human beings can rationally deliberate about their social instincts and social customs to formulate abstract rules of conduct that satisfy their natural desires as social animals.

Consider, then, how this trichotomy of order was manifested in the framing of the American constitutional order. The Constitution had to conform to universal human nature, because it had to recognize natural propensities such as ambition and self-interest that would need to be channelled through the constitutional system. And yet the structure of the constitutional system also had to conform to the customary experience of the Americans during the colonial period and under the Articles of Confederation. But while the constitutional framers were thus constrained by both universal human nature and particular human customs, they also had some freedom to deliberate about particular provisions of the new constitutional scheme.

The Iraqi people might learn much from the experience of American constitutional republicanism. For example, they might learn about the importance of the separation of powers, the rule of law, and private property in securing the conditions for ordered liberty. But any successful constitutional scheme for the Iraqis must be rooted in their own local traditions. For instance, they will have to struggle to develop their Islamic traditions of religious law in ways that reconcile moral community and individual liberty.

1 comment:

memetic warrior said...

Unfortunately, I can not agree with you Mr Arnhart, because your argument is contradictory in the long term: if both the common law and the Roman law have been imposed by imperialism in your country and in every other country that is now goberned by democracies...How can you invoke the common and Roman Law as the basic argument against the possibility to impose, by imperialism or colonialism, certain institutions in countries that do not have these common grounds?

Your argument strikes back and seems to support either isolation, as you said (if the enemy let you do it. I guess not) or a invasion followed by a very long term stay in rogue countries to transmit the basic institutions of democracy and yes, mix them with local customs, of course.