At any moment in time, the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. Manners are missing; ethics are being eliminated; culture is corrupted; social attitudes are supercilious; virtues are vanishing; literature is mostly licentious; industry and commerce are materialistically crude and callous; and humaneness is hamstrung by greed and selfishness. It’s the end of civilization. And there are always those who have projects and plans to fix it and set the world right, almost always through government directing action.
Walt Whitman’s Criticisms of “Fallen” America
The fears and concerns about social conditions and their solutions heard today have been expressed many a time in the past, both more distant and closer to our own time. For instance, the famous 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman (1819-92) expressed such disenchantment about the United States in his 1871 essay, Democratic Vistas:
Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States.… The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official [government] services of America are saturated with corruption, bribery, falsehood, and maladministration.
Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theater, barroom, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity — everywhere an abnormal libidinousness … with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners, probably the meanest to be seen in the world.
In spite of America’s industrial achievements, the rising standards of living, the opportunities for the less well off to better themselves, and the prevailing spirit of freedom and individual autonomy, America was enveloped with cultural decay and spiritual stagnation, Whitman forlornly said. Not too surprisingly, he called for a social and cultural renaissance in America through the emergence of great novelists and poets, who would capture and inspire a higher and truer and more virtuous path for America. They would highlight the heroism, the goodness, and the greatness of Democratic America, properly understood.
Whitman’s Better America and Political Paternalism
But he was too impatient to wait for these things to fully come on their own through literature and culture, appropriately inspired. A better and more virtuous America required the middle class being broadened to include more of those currently among the poor. A more active religious sentiment and practice as the ultimate foundation for America needed to be cultivated, along with love for and dedication to “the Union” to be fostered and reinforced all across the country (after all, it was only six years since the end of the Civil War). A unified and created nationalist spirit was essential.
Whitman offered no full central plan about how to ensure America being on a renewed path to “greatness,” but he made it clear that while Democracy (always in the essay with a capital “D”) was the “divine” and moral order for humanity, most especially in the United States, a free society could only be trusted with freedom when the proper values and virtues had been developed among the population.
As long as “the people” (what Whitman called God’s “divine aggregate”) was lacking in the needed qualities for free citizenship, political paternalism would have to rule over them until they were ready to democratically rule themselves. Or as Whitman expressed it: “That until the individual or community show due signs of [democratic self-ruling maturity], or be so minor or fractional as not to endanger the State, the condition of authoritative tutelage may continue, and self-government must abide its time.”
Whitman’s Program for Remaking the American People
What Whitman did call for was a “program” to be established for all Americans, to lead them to that higher level of true Democracy:
I should demand a program of Culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the West, the workingmen, the facts of farms and jackplanes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood. I should demand of this program or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area.
Out of this would come a new and better American Man. This program and agenda to make and keep America great would have to include the physical training of a superior breed of people. Said Whitman:
To our model a clear-blooded, strong-fibred physique, is indispensable; the questions of food, drink, air, exercise, assimilation, digestion, can never be intermitted.
Out of these we descry a well-begotten Selfhood in youth, fresh, ardent, emotional, aspiring, full of adventure; at maturity, brave, perceptive, under control, neither too talkative nor too reticent, neither flippant nor somber; of the bodily figure, the movements easy, the complexion showing the best blood, somewhat flushed, breast expanded, an erect attitude, a voice whose sound outvies music, eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable also of lashing and a general presence that holds its own in the company of the highest.
Whitman spoke of building a nation of persons imbued with a “Personality” of “Individuality.” But all of his new American individuals end up being cookie-cut from the same mental and physical mold. This renewed America, with new man (and woman), would be designed according to Walt Whitman’s imagination. In addition, the United States needed “future religious forms, sociology, literature, teachers, schools, costumes, &c., [all of] a compact whole, uniform, on tallying principles.” Walt Whitman seemed to want a peculiar individualism of national conformity in mind and body.
Hazony’s Call for Tradition and Rejection of “Rationalism”
A recent variation on the same theme is the call for a new national conservatism that rejects both the relativist multiculturalism of “the left” and what is called a “rationalist liberalism” that rejects a needed American traditionalism. It is summarized in a lecture delivered at Harvard University in April 2019 by Yoram Hazony (b. 1964), the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, Israel.
Hazony argues “Conservative Rationalism Has Failed” (part 1 and part 2). In essence, he wishes to see a political, economic, and cultural turn away from the ideas and influences of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Rationalism, individualism, the free market, and religious skepticism in America and the West, in general, have become socially decadent, culturally immoral, and philosophically foundationless due to the rejection of traditionalism as the basis of belief, values, and institutions, all of which rely upon certain religious ideas and dogmas, Hazony argues.
American conservatism went astray in the post–World War II period by eschewing the sacred and basing its case for a free and good society on “reason.” Says Hazony:
What were once linchpin concepts such as family and nation, man and woman, God and Scripture, the honorable and the sacred, have been found wanting and severely damaged, if not overthrown. The resulting void has been filled by new doctrines, until now mostly neo-Marxist or libertarian in character. But a racialist “white identity” politics in a Darwinian key is gathering momentum as well.
All three of these approaches to political and moral questions are, in a sense, creatures of the Enlightenment, claiming to be founded on a universally accessible reason and to play by its rules. This is another way of saying that none of them have much regard for inherited tradition, seeing it as contributing little to our understanding of politics and morals.
He also rejects the founding premises in the Declaration of Independence on the “natural rights” of each and every individual, “a kind of official ideology of the state” that he considers misplaced and dangerous for America. He argues that rationalists of every stripe presume that “reason” has the capacity and ability to create society, mold it into any desired shape, and transform the human condition. Hazony considers this misplaced.
Religion and Tradition Back in Public Schools
Society is the long and cumulative product of human experience that has emerged out of the contributions of countless generations. Traditions capture the wisdom of the ages, while the current generation, cutting itself off from all that historical humanity has learned, has nothing to go by but the reality of its own time, which is a mere slice of mankind’s time on this planet. Relying on what the reasoning minds of the current generation can know and with the arrogance that that is sufficient to design society has resulted in the conflicts, contradictions, and tyrannical presumptions of those such as the politically correct multiculturalists and identity-politics warriors.
The acceptance by conservatives of this “liberal rationalism,” Hazony warns, has brought about the loss of religion in society, reflected in the banishing of religion from the government school system and the public square in general. Thus, America and the West have become increasingly godless societies. Earlier in American history and politics, Hazony wistfully reminds his audience, religion was a central part of the political; now it has all but disappeared.
So what does Yoram Hazony want? He wants to reinstate religion, most importantly, within the public school system and as a mandatory part of the curriculum:
A nation that honors its religious traditions in the schools will end up honoring traditions in the broader public sphere. A nation that heaps dishonor on its religious traditions by banning them from the schools will end up dishonoring its traditions in the broader public sphere as America consistently does today.
Without religion, Hazony believes, reasonable men guided by reason alone will simply go around in circles ending up, perhaps, with Marxist conclusions, maybe white-nationalist results, or possibly liberal or libertarian outcomes. Nobody knows and anything goes, unless there is this outside-and-above-man standard, benchmark, and imposer of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, and free and unfree on humanity.
What should be the standards and benchmarks and expected criteria for ideas and actions, according to Hazony? In other words, according to him, what does God want of us? He tells us honor and restraint. Restraint, he says, teaches us that there are natural and social limits in the confines of which freedom is possible by specifying what is or is not right, possible or doable. Honor refers to following standards and acting accordingly.
Teaching Restraint and Honor in Public Schools
Hazony believes that reason and public discourse or introspective reflection cannot ensure the discovery, valuation, and following of restraints in our personal conduct. Reason unrestrained by God-based tradition leads to chaos and tyranny, he implies. Only tradition, that is, acceptance of what earlier generations have handed down to us, can safely guide us to know that we should not do this or that — that we are obligated to do one thing but not another — and can bring restraint to people’s personal and social conduct. Once you tell people that they can decide what is good or bad, or right and wrong, the genie is out of the bottle and social instability and discord seemingly inevitably follow.
How do you get people to act in these restrained ways, according to Hazony? By honoring people who do — that is, by recognizing, socially rewarding, and respecting honorable conduct. But what is honorable conduct? Hazony suggests:
My proposal is straightforward: Freedom cannot be maintained in the absence of self-constraint. And the only known means of causing individuals to shoulder hardship and constraint without coercion or significant financial compensation is by rewarding them with honor — that is, with status and public approval that is tied to their upholding inherited norms and ideals rather than choosing to be free of them. Thus, for example, in the old Christian and Jewish order, individuals were honored for marrying and raising children, for military service, for national and religious leadership, for teaching the young, for knowledge of Scripture, law and custom, for performing religious duties, and for personally caring for the aged.
So serving in the military or in public office, as well as caring for one’s parents, and being a good husband, father, and son, should be honored in society. But as far as Hazony is concerned,
The demolition of the nation’s traditions is, at bottom, a struggle to prevent the government, schools, and private institutions from giving honor to norms inherited from the past.… I don’t believe that America has much of a chance of righting itself, for example, so long as most children are required to attend schools in which God and Scripture are daily dishonored by their absence.
Notice that while Hazony refers to the positive influence of traditions inherited from the past, and the positive social power of people being inspired and guided by what may be learned from the long experience of mankind, he believes in the state as one or even the primary societal mechanism to inculcate those traditions and values within the nation.
Disturbed that the political and cultural rationalism that he decries is propagandized for in the government-run and government-mandated educational system, he does not call for ending the government’s compulsory schooling and allowing free, voluntary, and competitive private education to function in its place. No, he wants cultural and “conservative” centrally planned schooling as much as those on “the left” that he disagrees with and disapproves of.
Conservative-Content Public Schooling Is Still Social Engineering
Conservative values wrapped in religious training will be the political vehicle to put the “right” ideas, attitudes, and conduct into people’s heads. A competition of ideas concerning which if any traditions should be followed, an intellectual rivalry about alternative notions of “tradition” and its appropriate content, is not what Hazony wants. He says that the bedrock of American traditionalist conservatism is Judaism and Christianity, and these must be reintroduced into the curriculum and taught to every young American.
But whose “Christianity” and “Judaism”? He admits that religion has been the basis of conflict and discord in the past, but he shrugs off the possibility that once religion is mandatory in every schoolroom, the battles will bubble to the surface once again. Catholicism or Protestantism? Among the many branches, which variations on the Protestant theme will be given greater prominence?
What about Judaism, and what happens when Jewish students are insistently taught that “Jesus is their Lord and Savior, the Redeemer who has already come and died for their sins”? And by the way, words matter. What will “the Book” be called: the “Old Testament” or the “Hebrew Bible”?
This, alone, can cause flurries of conflict and controversy. Is it necessary to point out the discord that has arisen over evolution versus creationism? Once religious training is compulsory in government schools, that will cause no end of warfare among parents and proselytizers of one reading of the Bible versus another on science versus faith. What about atheists and Muslims or Buddhists?
The classical liberal and libertarian case for full privatization of education defuses all these curriculum troubles and tensions. Parents and students select their own education and schooling institutions. Schools compete in offering curricula and teaching methods to serve and suit the desires and demands of many different consumers of education.
But this is not what Hazony wants to hear. For him, this demonstrates the supposed bankruptcy of “liberal” rationalism. There is one true tradition and one true faith to be taught in America. And if he is in charge — or those who think like him — all of us will get it whether or not we want part, all, or none of it. Yoram Hazony’s conservative traditionalism is a potential road to theological authoritarianism.
Hayek on Reasonable vs. Rationalistic Enlightenment
But what is most missing in Hazony’s harking back to pre-Enlightenment premises for society is a failure on his part to appreciate that there were several intellectual strands within the Enlightenment tradition that emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries. His caricature of Enlightenment liberalism is one of them, albeit a highly influential one.
In 1946, Austrian economist F.A. Hayek delivered a lecture on what he called “Individualism: True and False.” The gist of his argument was that there had been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding concerning the relationship between the individual and society, both in terms of social theory and practical politics.
He juxtaposed what he suggested could be considered two traditions of social and political individualism that emerged out of the Enlightenment: the British and the French. The British tradition included such thinkers as John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson (the last three of whom were among those often referred to as the Scottish moral philosophers). For these British thinkers, social theory began with a focus on the individual because they understood that “society” is not an entity separate from the interactions of the individuals who comprise it. To understand the origin and evolution of society, we must understand the logic and interactive processes of human action.
For especially the Scottish philosophers, John Locke’s conception of an original state of nature prior to government, out of which a “social contract” emerged for the formation of government so individuals may be more secure and protected in their “natural rights” to their respective lives, liberty, and honestly acquired property, was a mental experiment to deduce the logic of a limited government desired to ensure liberty rather than abridge it.
It was not claimed that this was the origin of society or government. It was understood and explained by David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and others that the ideas and institutions of a free society had emerged and taken form through long societal evolutionary processes up until their own times. It was asking precisely what our reason and our historical knowledge and our human experience tell us about the nature of man, the heritage of earlier generations, and the practices of governments in the past that led to the suggested benefits of, in Adam Smith’s words, “a System of Natural Liberty,” with its wide personal and economic freedom, if liberty and prosperity was to be cultivated for all.
Furthermore, in this British or Scottish tradition the conception of man is not that of a rational calculator presumed to possess perfect knowledge and guided only by a narrow material notion of “self-interest.” Instead, man was seen as motivated by passions as much as by cool reason, with imperfect and limited knowledge. The social order and many of its institutional traditions, customs, and rules of interaction have evolved slowly and in unanticipated and unpredictable ways over many human lifetimes. Much of what is called human society and civilization is, therefore, seen as “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (to use the phrase coined by Ferguson and often quoted by Hayek).
Thus the British and Scottish Enlightenment tradition of individualism had little confidence in the ability to plan society. And particularly because of man’s imperfections and foibles, these thinkers were reluctant to see power centralized in the hands of government. Far better to decentralize decision-making in the private competitive market so as to limit the potential damage from error and abuse.
In the alternative French tradition represented by thinkers such as Descartes, Hayek argued, there was a tendency toward hyper-rationality, a belief that man through his reason could understand clearly and definitely how to remake society. All social institutions and traditions not “provable” through logic and rational reflection to be “useful” or “good” were to be criticized and torn down. In their place would be constructed a new world according to a politically planned design. In many of his writings over the years, Hayek tried to show the “fatal conceit” in those who presumed to possess the knowledge and ability to reconstruct man and society in their own “enlightened” image.
Hazony’s Failure to Appreciate the Importance of Liberalism
If Hazony knew about or appreciated the Scottish variation on Enlightenment thinking, particularly as interpreted and formulated by someone like Friedrich Hayek, a reasonable conclusion would be that it is classical liberalism that not only respects individual liberty and economic freedom, but cultivates a social setting in which the evolved traditions and institutions of society are able to endure and “naturally” evolve over time in the context of the heritage of the past.
It is of note that in volume one of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1973), Hayek’s last major work, he warned that the “rationalism” that Hazony opposes often fosters that type of revolt against reason that can lead blind faith, emotional irrationalism, and calls to higher intuitions claimed to be possessed by political ideologues and fanatics to arise as the false alternatives to the use of reason properly understood.
So that society can escape from both dangers — the hyper-rationalism of the social engineer and the anti-rationalism of the coercing traditionalist — Hayek explained, “Liberalism for this reason restricts deliberate control of the overall order of the society to the enforcement of general rules as are necessary for the formation of a spontaneous order [of a free society], the details of which we cannot foresee.”
Yoram Hazony’s call for a conservative traditionalism supported by government through enforced public schooling and political propagandizing in the public square for developing “honorable” conduct among the citizenry is another variation on the collectivist and statist theme. It is the other side of the same paternalistic and central planning coin as the politically correct multiculturalists that Hazony wishes to unseat.
Once there is an attempt to re-create or design the institutions of a society and their content, the “traditionalist” becomes the very type of “rationalist” social engineer that Hazony says he opposes. The very nature of the traditions of belief, values, codes of conduct, and inherited conceptions of “right things to do” is precisely their lack of centralized planning and construction.
Real Traditions Are Part of the Spontaneous Order
Traditions and the social institutions in which they are embedded emerge, take their forms, influence, and guide human action and interactions most often in unplanned ways. They originate out of the actions of individuals or groups of individuals usually pursuing purposes of the moment and their personal futures, with unintended consequences of which they have little or no forethought and which oftentimes they could not fully imagine if they tried.
Think for a moment of an example from Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on Civil Society (1767) concerning the emergence of property rights, law, and government:
Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrives at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate, and pass on, like animals, in the track of their nature, without perceiving its end. He who first said, “I will appropriate this field: I will leave it to my heirs,” did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments.
Or Adam Smith’s explanation in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1766) of part of the institutional origins of probity, punctuality, and trustworthiness arising from the self-interested conduct of commerce and trade:
Whenever commerce is introduced into any country, probity and punctuality always accompany it.… It is far more reducible to self-interest, that general principle which regulates the actions of every man, and which leads men to act in a certain manner from views of advantage, and is as deeply implanted in an Englishman as a Dutchman.
A dealer is afraid of losing his character, and is scrupulous in observing every engagement. When a person makes perhaps 20 contracts in a day, he cannot gain so much by endeavoring to impose on his neighbors, as the very appearance of a cheat would make him lose.
When people seldom deal with one another, we find that they are somewhat disposed to cheat, because they can gain more by a smart trick than they can lose by the injury that it does to their character.… Wherever dealings are frequent, a man does not expect to gain so much by any one contract as by probity and punctuality in the whole, and a prudent dealer, who is sensible of his real interest, would rather choose to lose what he has a right to than give any ground for suspicion.…
When the greater part of people are merchants they always bring probity and punctuality into fashion, and these therefore are the principle virtues of a commercial nation.
The inability to know where and how these institutions emerge and the details and importance of their forms and patterns was emphasized by the Austrian economist Friedrich von Weiser in his treatise Social Economics (1914):
The economy is full of social institutions which serve the entire economy and are so harmonious in structure as to suggest that they are the creation of an organized social will. Actually they can only have originated in the cooperation of periodically independent persons. Such a social institution is illustrated by money, by the economic market, by the division of labor.…
How could any general contractual agreement be reached as to institutions whose being is still hidden in the mists of the future, and is only conceived in an incomplete manner by a few far-seeing persons, while the great mass can never clearly appreciate the nature of such an institution until it actually attained its full form and is generally operative?
And, finally, as Ludwig von Mises expressed it in Theory and History (1957):
The historical process is not designed by individuals. It is the composite outcome of the intentional actions of all individuals. No man can plan history. All he can plan and try to put into effect is his own actions which, jointly with the actions of other men, constitute the historical process. The Pilgrim Fathers did not plan to found the United States.
All that most likely can be effectively done to create the “space” for the reemergence of traditions reflecting the actions, experiences, and the heritage of intergenerational wisdom is the removal of the political planning, regulation, and redistributive government policies that handicap and restrain the free action of multitudes of individuals.
In their place should be the “end-independent” general rules of individual rights, private property, free and voluntary exchange and association, and an impartial rule of law recognizing and protecting those “natural” rights to personal freedom and peaceful interrelationships among the members of society.
In this setting the use and role of “reason” to guide our actions, the appeal to some of faiths (and which ones), the forms of conduct considered appropriately “restraining” and deserving to be “honored” would spontaneously emerge anew. No doubt, this process will draw upon the heritage and legacies of the traditions of the past that remain as the residues of human affairs, in spite of the impact of the social-engineering mentality and its works.
But Yoram Hazony’s central plan to socially engineer the re-creation of the tradition-based society will be defeated by the very rationalist uses of government that he has chosen to reverse the rationalism of the political Left he so strongly opposes.
This article was originally published at The American Institute for Economic Research.