Common-good conservatism, Vatican II, and Thomas Jefferson

Everyone has read Adrian Vermeule’s piece at The Atlantic advocating for a common-good conservatism. Basically, Vermeule argues, conservatives should abandon originalism in favor of a constitutional approach founded upon the common good, the natural law, and the law of nations. He argues that the powers of the government, while they could be founded upon specific constitutional provisions, need not be founded upon them. Instead, the general constitutional structure and the principles of the common good and just rule would provide the support for the government’s powers.

Vermeule’s piece has met with significant criticism from all quarters. The conservative legal establishment, even the Catholics among them, has too much invested in originalism to abandon it in favor of “progressive” approaches to the Constitution, even when those approaches would further conservative goals. Right- and left-liberals see in Vermeule’s argument incipient authoritarianism: state power untrammeled by the checks and balances of the federal constitution. Through all of this is the thread that, for whatever reason, the suggestion that the Constitution ought to be interpreted according to the natural law and moral principles is seen as dangerously reactionary. Worse still is the idea that the government has the obligation to promote the common good, which is an idea with definite content.

However, I think there are some points that ought to be brought out. First of all, the idea Vermeule advances is simply the doctrine of the Roman Church. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council outlined an energetic civil authority with the obligation to promote the common good for the total well-being of its citizens. Second, there is a tradition going back to the founders of the Republic that (1) morality applies to republics as well as men and (2) that there is a law higher than the written constitution. These principles, in fact, may be readily found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Originalism must reckon with this reality, in addition to its regular citations of Noah Webster’s dictionary and The Federalist.

I.

So-called “common good conservatism” is simply the doctrine of the Roman Church, even in the era following the Second Vatican Council. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, “The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy” (74). Furthermore, “[i]f the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good” (ibid.). However, the authority must be exercised “not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility” (ibid.). The Council went on to declare that, “[i]t follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good—according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established” (ibid.). When it is so exercised, it is binding in conscience and must be obeyed (ibid.).

The Council also articulates a robust vision of the scope of political authority as well, teaching that “[t]he complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions which will give more effective help to citizens and groups in their free pursuit of man’s total well-being” (75). This can extend so far as the temporary restriction of rights for the common good (ibid.). While the Council calls for written instruments of positive law setting forth rights of citizens, the Council also takes care to note that individual citizens have duties to the common good.

One finds in Gaudium et spes, therefore, a vision of the state ordered to and constrained by the common good and the moral law, but within those constraints with significant authority to act broadly and energetically in all spheres of common life to promote the total well-being of its citizens. With the Council’s language about obedience and the duties of citizens to the common good, one could read Gaudium et spes almost as an endorsement of a total state, directing, through intervention in all aspects of life, “the energies of all citizens toward the common good,” and their total well-being.

From the beginning of the integralism debate, Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists has been a foundational text. Indeed, one might say that it is the foundational text of integralism in the 21st century. And De Koninck’s explanation of the Thomistic vision of the common good and political authority in service of the common good provides an important background for the Council’s teaching, especially in the context of the vision of the sweeping power of the state. De Koninck’s careful explanations exonerate the Gaudium et spes state from the charge of totalitarianism, though, like Gaudium et spes, De Koninck challenges us to reconsider liberal notions of the limits of the state.

However, I think Vermeule makes an error, at least by the terms of Gaudium et spes. He claims, “[a] corollary is that to act outside or against inherent norms of good rule is to act tyrannically, forfeiting the right to rule, but the central aim of the constitutional order is to promote good rule, not to ‘protect liberty’ as an end in itself.” This is not quite right. In Gaudium et spes, the Council teaches, “[b]ut where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.” The Council’s teaching is a fairly straightforward restatement of St. Paul’s teaching in the Letter to the Romans and Thomas Aquinas’s teaching in the De Regno and the Summa Theologiae. Legitimacy is not an on-off switch, and where a bad ruler makes ordinances that are still “objectively required for the common good,” the ordinances must still be obeyed.

Whether or not Vermeule’s mistake has significant consequences for his argument is not immediately clear. One could follow Alasdair MacIntyre and claim that the universal accessibility of the natural law is a significant argument against centralization, especially the sort of centralization Vermeule argues for, which is ultimately patterned on the governments of Louis IX and Frederick II. There are problems with MacIntyre’s argument, including—I think—a misreading of some of Frederick’s Sicilian legislation (especially as it relates to his imperial legislation). However, treating legitimacy as an on-off switch makes it harder to rebut MacIntyre’s argument against centralization. Indeed, centralization of a leader supported by a strong bureaucracy presents significant risks if one tyrannical act delegitimizes the entire regime. The problem is much less significant if the act is taken on its own terms without implicating the right to rule.

Prescinding from technical questions such as the nature of legitimacy in the context of tyranny, for Catholics (and others) who have followed the integralism debate over the past few years, the teaching of Gaudium et spes is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Indeed, it is a pretty conventional summary of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The political community is ordered to the common good, there must be an authority to direct the citizens toward the common good, and the acts of that authority are binding in conscience if they are “exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good.” What is interesting is the debate, even among integralists, about Dignitatis humanae and its supposed liberalism hardly takes notice of these statements in Gaudium et spes.

All of this is to say that, for Catholics, even Catholics suspicious of reliance on Pius IX and Leo XIII, there is very little controversial in Vermeule’s common-good conservatism. Indeed, given that the teaching in Gaudium et spes is explicitly founded in some significant part upon natural law, there is very little controversial in Vermeule’s argument for anyone. Of course, this is not quite the case: Vermeule’s piece has become hugely controversial, even among Catholics. Non-Catholic conservatives prefer to emphasize the constitution’s text, rejecting the claim there is a higher law or that morality forms a part of the law.

Vermeule’s Catholic critics must reckon with Gaudium et spes. To assert that there is no room for the common good, for the moral order, in government is to contradict the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, to affect horror at the concept of public authority exercising its power in social, economic, and cultural matters to order the state to the common good and establish conditions propitious for the total well-being of all citizens is to deny outright the teaching that the political authority must be obeyed when it acts in such a manner. So far from casting off the authoritarian teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII in favor of the fresh air of the Council, Vermeule’s Catholic critics are casting off the Council’s teaching.

Even if they are not casting off the Council’s teaching, they are presenting a vision of the Council that emphasizes the aspects superficially compatible with liberalism in the 20th century. To focus on a few paragraphs in Dignitatis humanae without giving equivalent attention to the teaching in Gaudium et spes is to present a false picture of the Council and its vision for modern society. To challenge this false picture, one need not go so far as to demonstrate the consistency of the Council with the teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII—to say nothing of Boniface VIII—one need only insist upon the presentation of the Council’s integral teaching, without omissions or distortions. It becomes clear that the Council becomes little more than a pretext, quickly discarded, for adopting liberalism in its entirety.

II.

All of Vermeule’s critics must reckon with the fact that the conception of the common good and the moral order as a framework for government is not altogether alien in the American tradition. Certainly, one can cite Abraham Lincoln at great length, both in his debates with Stephen Douglas, and in his actions during the rebellion, in support of that principle. However, one can find support going back to the every beginning of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, in his April 28, 1793 “Opinion on the French Treaties,” observed that the “Moral law of our nature” constitutes an important part of the law of nations, and that the “Moral duties which exist between individual and individual in the state of nature, accompany them into a state of society & and the aggregate of the duties of all the individuals composing the society constitutes the duties of that society towards any other . . . .” Indeed, Jefferson went on to observe that God did not release men from their moral duties when they entered into society.

Furthermore, nearly twenty years later, Jefferson, in a September 20, 1810 letter to John B. Colvin, admitted the existence of a law higher than the Constitution. He wrote, “[a] strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation” (emphasis in original). Indeed, Jefferson argued, “[t]o lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

The hermeneutic of originalism has to reckon with statements like this. The opinions of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, the second Vice President, the first Secretary of State, and member of Congress cannot be held for naught simply because they are not James Madison’s opinions (or Alexander Hamilton’s or any other framer you’d like). If originalism is a coherent interpretative tool and not merely a fig leaf for this or that libertarian policy preference, then Jefferson’s views matter. Indeed, they probably matter more than Noah Webster’s dictionary or floor speeches in Congress by less influential persons.

Of course, one may adduce in opposition to these selections the extract from Jefferson’s commonplace book in which he argues—against the opinions of many learned judges and lawyers—that Christianity was never part of the common law. And even if one does not go that far, one hardly needs lessons in morality from one such as Thomas Jefferson, whose behavior in certain respects has become infamous in recent decades. Yet this does not change the fact that Jefferson’s views constitute part of the civil tradition of the United States.

Carl Schmitt contra William Barr

In a high-profile speech at Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr made a forceful case for religion in public life. He argued that Judeo-Christian religious and moral values have been essential components in the life of the Republic since its founding. He noted that these values have been under siege in the public square for some time, with dire consequences for the moral and political life of the nation. Indeed, Barr observes that the Judeo-Christian values have been replaced with secular values that present serious threats to ordered liberty. Barr recently made a similar case in a speech in Nashville, Tennessee. It is clear that Barr sees these moral values as necessary for a healthy, functioning state.

Barr has recently been the subject of some attention in the press, with Tamsin Shaw calling him “the Carl Schmitt of our time” at the New York Review of Books. David Rohde, writing at the New Yorker, presents Barr as an ideologue, using Donald Trump’s expansive notions of presidential power to achieve religious and political goals of his own. It is the allusion to Carl Schmitt that is most evocative. Shaw has in mind the early-2000s Schmitt revival, especially in the context of George W. Bush’s War on Terror policies. This is not unreasonable. Important thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben turned to Schmitt for a framework to assess the political-juridical environment following the September 11 attacks. However, for Shaw, Barr appears to be a Schmittian figure largely because he believes in an expansive interpretation of presidential power under the Article II Vesting Clause of the United States Constitution.

It is unclear to me, however, that Barr is actually much of a Schmittian. His rhetoric in the Notre Dame and Nashville speeches is, candidly, basically the same religious conservative rhetoric that I’ve heard from various places for the past fifteen or twenty years. (It’s even older than that, I think.) Barr is a little gloomier about the state of the Republic, but we live in an era after Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” speech. Indeed, following Obergefell and other significant setbacks for religious conservatives during the Obama years, there is room for pessimism about the state of the United States. Likewise, the despair that finds concrete expression in widespread drug use and the appalling suicide statistics of recent years does not necessarily inspire great optimism. In this sense, Barr is simply identifying what anyone with eyes to see should understand.

More than this, it is Carl Schmitt himself that offers the most serious rebuttal to Barr’s rhetoric. Barr speaks entirely of values: if the correct values were enshrined, he says, in our laws and public institutions, the pernicious phenomena of recent years would be addressed. However, Schmitt makes a compelling case that conceiving of important metaphysical commitments in terms of values inherently leads to enmity and strife, which ultimately will imperil the ordered liberty Barr evidently seeks to preserve. Worse than this—at least for Barr—to conceive of these commitments in values paradoxically leads to the secularization that Barr wants to avoid.

In his 1959 speech (privately printed in 1960 and reissued in 1967), The Tyranny of Values, the jurist Carl Schmitt makes the claim that “[v]alue is not, rather it holds.” For this reason, Schmitt argues that “[v]alue precisely lusts after actualization. It is not real, but directed toward realization and longs for enforcement and implementation.” This is a startling claim: value is not real—but it is held and it is enforced. It also comes as no surprise that other values are diminished in the process of enforcement and implementation. Schmitt observes that “No one can value without devaluing, raising in value, and valuizing. Whoever sets values has thereby set himself against non-values.” In other words, to hold—to enforce—a value means necessarily to reject and exclude other values. To declare them, in effect, non-values.

At the outset, one sees that, in Schmitt’s account, the enforcement of values is inherent in the concept of value generally. The constant judicial strife in United States courts over this or that social issue becomes immediately comprehensible: it is necessary that values be enforced and judges are as good as anyone to enforce values. (More on that in a moment.) Indeed, more broadly, cultural strife becomes immediately comprehensible. Values have to be held and enforced, other values have to be rejected and excluded, and this can take place in any number of forums.

In a passage reminiscent of his 1922 book, Political Theology, Schmitt cites Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege for genealogy of the philosophy of values. For Heidegger, value philosophy emerges in the 19th century as a response to the advance of value-free science. It is, in Heidegger’s pungent phrase, “the positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Schmitt expands the argument: science threatened the freedom of the individual, especially in the “religious-ethical-juristic” dimension. Value philosophy answers this dilemma by preserving the individual as a “free, responsible essence,” if not as a being, then as a holder of values. In other words, for Schmitt, value philosophy is an attempt to preserve individuality in the face of science, which imposes purely causal definitions for beings.

A brief aside: seen in this light, value philosophy is a reaction to the advance of value-free science. But it is not an escape from the effects of value-free science. In Schmitt’s lengthy introduction to The Tyranny of Values, written for a 1967 edition, he observes that theologians, philosophers, and jurists “promise themselves from a philosophy of value … salvation from an irresistibly advancing natural scientificity.” But the transformation of the foundations of theology, philosophy, and law—that is, the metaphysical presuppositions of those fields—into values “can only accelerate the process of the general neutralization.” The “general neutralization,” Schmitt argues, even goes so far as to dissolve all oppositions, including, for example, the opposition between science and utopia. More than that, no less than science, values themselves become levers for utopia. Indeed, “[a]ll social and biological utopias consequently place values of all kinds at their disposal.”

In other words, Schmitt decisively rejects the notion that any particular values—even values heretofore denominated as conservative—are a bulwark against precisely the scientific, neutralizing tendency that required the adoption of values. On the contrary, the adoption of values accelerates “the process of general neutralization.” Making things worse, there is a positive feedback loop: the general neutralization dissolves all oppositions, opening the field for a scientific-utopian conception, which in turn uses values in its own way. So far from resisting the creeping advance of science, value philosophy for Schmitt ensures the ultimate triumph of science and pure causality.

All of this presents serious problems for Barr’s vision. For one thing, to speak of Judeo-Christian religious values is not to escape value logic, but instead to reduce profound metaphysical commitments to values and to subject them to the process of valuation and de-valuation inherent in the logic of values. Worse than this, this process hastens the “process of general neutralization.” In other words, re-enforcing and re-implementing “Judeo-Christian values” will not stop the processes that alarm Barr, but are simply new phases in those processes. As they continue, the re-enforcement and re-implementation will end up serving the neutralization that he objects to.

It is not merely for Barr that this account of “values” presents significant problems. If one accepts Heidegger and Schmitt’s account—which goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche according to Heidegger—to speak in terms of “values” is to accept a certain approach to metaphysical contentions resulting in a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Likewise, one must question, from the Christian perspective, whether or not it is advisable, even inadvertently, to reduce human freedom and responsibility to the dimension of holding this or that value. (Surely it is not.) The language of values becomes less and less appealing as a line of flight from the inexorable march of scientific nihilism.

It is in this same vein that Schmitt makes another important point. He follows Max Weber’s argument that individuals set values. For Weber, according to Schmitt, the subjective freedom of the individual in setting values is opposed to the “absolute value freedom of scientific positivism.” Schmitt sees a particular outcome, however. The world of individuals, all subjectively setting values that long for enforcement will produce a bellum omnium contra omnes. Indeed, for Schmitt, values set in subjective freedom are simply the “old gods” making war—and with new technological means. This is inherent in the logic of values. Value must be made valid. As a result, “[t]he boundless tolerance and neutrality of the arbitrarily exchangeable standpoints and viewpoints immediately turns over into its opposite, into enmity, as soon as it becomes a concretely serious matter of enactment and making valid.” But we already know that value “longs for enforcement and implementation.” Value inevitably leads to enmity.

As a result of all of this, Schmitt follows Nicolai Hartmann in speaking of a “tyranny of values.” “The higher value has the right and duty to subject the lower value to itself, and the value as such annihilates with right the non-value as such.” As a result of this, the value assumes a dominance over the individual who holds it. Schmitt is indifferent to whether this is psychologically unavoidable or unavoidable in itself. The bottom line is that “[i]n terms of value logic, it must always be valid: that for the highest value the highest price is not too high and must be paid.” As a result, the war of values becomes total war, without, as Schmitt goes on to observe, any of the traditional categories of just war (e.g., proportionality). There is only, Schmitt says, the annihilator and the annihilated. It is therefore the role of the supreme legislator to mediate this process and “to hinder the terror” of the enforcement of value.

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate in conservative circles (broadly defined) about state power and the extent to which the state should intervene decisively in social questions. This is for the most part the essence of the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. We see in Carl Schmitt’s account the incoherence of French’s position and the strength in Ahmari’s. In yielding to value philosophy, there is inevitably conflict. This conflict has to be managed and mediated by the legislator, lest the total war of values turn to technological weapons capable of achieving the distinction between annihilator and annihilated.

It is also worth noting here that Schmitt gestures toward the total state and the hero-leader when he observes that the lawgivers who have successfully mediated the enforcement of values (and hindered the terror associated with that enforcement of values) become “mythic figures,” such as Lycurgus, Solon, and Napoleon Bonaparte. In other words, the bellum omnium contra omnes unleashed by values requires a figure of mythic proportions to take things in hand. The notion that Judeo-Christian values lead to limited government is, in Schmitt’s account, simply false. Values require unlimited government to mediate the struggle between individuals holding strongly opposed values.

This too shows the dangers for Barr in thinking in terms of values. In the Notre Dame speech, he identifies at length the serious actions taken against Christians and other people of faith in the name of the new secular values that have displaced Judeo-Christian values. But this is necessary according to the logic of values. Inevitably, reducing these commitments to values leads to the enmity Barr laments. Value must be made valid, and this process results in total war. To re-enforce and re-implement Judeo-Christian values would not be an end to this war, according to Schmitt, but instead a new round.

They don’t get paid to take vacations

At The Josias today, there is a fascinating series of fragments on the subject of integralist penal law. I would, of course, think they are fascinating not least because I wrote them. However, in the debates about integralism, the absence of integralist proposals for the penal law is often advanced as a criticism of integralism. The implication is that integralism is simply underdeveloped—or, worse, that there is a certain prudence on display. That is, in the latter case, the implication is that the integralist penal law would be disqualifying in some way or another. However, there are problems with that view, not least because there are questions that would have to be answered before a hypothetical integralist regime could promulgate penal law. The fragments I have put together are aimed, for the most part, at those questions.

Integralism and the right

At City Journal, Park MacDougald has a very interesting piece about Catholic illiberalism in the wake of the French-Ahmari debate. In full disclosure, I spoke with MacDougald and am quoted in the piece. On the whole, MacDougald’s presentation of the status quaestionis is fair. Much fairer, indeed, than some of the sharp critiques leveled at integralists by other Catholics. Part of this, no doubt, is the author: MacDougald has been writing about the intellectual currents on the right for a while. For example, he has been writing interesting pieces about various authors and events on the right for New York magazine for a year or two now. However, part of this has to be the moment.

Indeed, the debates that MacDougald summarizes for a general audience seem to me to be part of a broader moment. I have written a lot here about liberalism generally and the potential crisis of liberalism that is emerging along social and cultural lines. But it must be observed that the debate is, for the most part, a debate taking place on the political right. Sohrab Ahmari and David French are both—at least in terms of how they describe themselves—men of the right. Most people would say that National Review and First Things are both right-wing publications; indeed, both would probably be among the most influential right-wing publications today. The other participants in the debate are also generally men and women of the right.

Even the prominent Catholic critics of integralism, such as Massimo Faggioli, are ultimately not conventional secular progressives. Whatever my disagreements with the Catholic critics of integralism, I have little doubt in my mind that they are no more enthusiastic about the excesses of identity politics, political correctness, intersectionality, or whatever else you want to mention than Sohrab Ahmari. Indeed, some of them, such as Ryan Anderson, boss at the integralism-obsessed Public Discourse, made their names expressing right-wing views on social-cultural issues. And even if a critic like Faggioli wanted to make common cause with the secular left, he would find out that the left gets to define who is a leftist and very few Catholics ever make the cut.

Consequently, the debate over integralism is, in broader terms, a debate on the right. And it cannot be denied that the right generally is ascendant at the moment. The rise of populism since 2008 or so has been, for the most part, a right-wing phenomenon. Even Hillary Clinton, whose campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 was structured along broadly populist lines, abandoned a left-wing populism when confronted with Donald Trump’s right-wing version. Throughout Europe, right-wing populists are achieving significant successes, the most notable of which is the departure of England from the European Union. Nigel Farage’s farewell speech in the European Parliament yesterday, for example, was, in part, a defense of populism against the dominant EU ideology. Enough has been said about Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Voices on the left recognize that leftists have been increasingly excluded from power. Sam Kriss—the leftist blogger who was sort of cancelled during the height of Me Too, though he has sort of made a comeback except on Twitter—wrote a piece following Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the English general election. I think it is worth dwelling on one passage in particular:

The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold.

(Emphasis supplied.) Now, this is obviously contingent. As I write, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are essentially tied for the lead in the Iowa caucus polls. For many people, including a large (or at least extremely online) contingent of Catholics, Bernie Sanders, the cantankerous democratic socialist from Vermont, represents the old left. That is the left before it became bogged down with identity politics and political correctness and intersectionality. The left in the good old days when Marxist students and UAW members at Buick City in Detroit marched toward a fairer economy.

Even more significantly, Sanders represents a left-populism that is far more vibrant than Hillary Clinton’s politics of resentment from 2008. While it is true, therefore, that right-wing populism has made significant political gains and ushered in the triumph of disaster for the left, it seems to me that there remains a possibility that the left will recover at least some of those losses through Sanders’s candidacy. Now, it may all go wrong: Joe Biden might win Iowa, Sanders might win New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar might win South Carolina, and the front runner after Super Tuesday might get shellacked by Mike Bloomberg. But until it does go wrong, I think it is necessary to admit that Kriss’s despair, while entirely rational, is contingent.

But it is entirely rational to see the left in disarray and despair even if only for the moment. And it is therefore worth thinking about integralism and the right more generally. Obviously, there can be no compromises with respect to integralism, not least since integralism is simply the perennial doctrine of the Roman Church with respect to its relations with states and the obligations states owe God. But it is worth thinking about what integralists can offer to the right more generally. MacDougald quotes Ross Douthat to the effect that integralism will pull Catholic intellectuals to the left economically and to the right with respect to civil liberties and censorship.

To put it another way, unless and until the left proves that it has any vitality left outside Brooklyn, integralists’ engagement should not be an engagement with leftists. It should be engagement with the right. Certainly, to the extent that leftist thought has unique insights not otherwise contained in the Church’s teaching (a debatable proposition if one believes Pius XI and Paul VI), there may be some sense in engaging with leftist thought. But at the moment, there is not really a political expression of leftist thought with any access to state power. Consequently, such engagement can happen as easily within integralist circles as it can in dialogue with the left, not least since integralists are more likely to realize and grapple with the real limitations of leftist thought, especially from a doctrinal standpoint.

However, this process does not happen in a vacuum and as Catholic intellectuals are drawn into a new posture, it stands to reason that these debates will be noticed. Indeed, MacDougald’s piece, among others, proves that these debates are being noticed. There does not appear to be any reason why this should ultimately be a passive project for integralists. Currently there are exciting discussions on the right about industrial policy, state power, and economic justice, all of which can be informed by integralist views. Likewise other aspects of the right-wing moment, such as populism, have a long history with the Church and can be informed by authentically Catholic teaching.

One should not be overly optimistic. The institutions on the right are, in all probability, as hostile to the Church’s teaching as the institutions on the left are. Politicians, no matter how earnest and high minded they may be at any given point, often make compromises, usually at the expense of true believers. But in a moment where the right is ascendant and the debates among Catholics about integralism and liberalism are attracting broader attention, it would be perverse not to advocate forcefully for integralist positions—prudently, of course, recognizing always the constraints that exist.

Ryan T. Anderson forgives us and is ready for us to unblock him

On July 5, 2015, Twitter poet Dril tweeted out an all-time classic, “if youre one of the guys who blocked me on here, i Forgive you, and im ready for you to unblock me now.” On September 9, 2019, Ryan T. Anderson, publisher of America’s leading journal of anti-integralism, Public Discourse, expanded at length upon Dril’s tweet. Ostensibly inspired by the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, Anderson delivers such pithy insights as, “This discussion is best understood not as an ‘either-or’ but as a ‘both-and.'” He goes on to assert that, “The essential intellectual work involves thinking through how to understand the ‘and’ at the theoretical level, and then fleshing out how to embody and implement that ‘and’ at a practical level.” In other words, the harmony of pen and sword between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is basically for Ahmari to concede French’s project (which is, more or less, Anderson’s project). Ryan T. Anderson forgives illiberals for their intransigence and is ready for us to stop complaining about things he likes.

You can read the whole thing at Public Discourse, but it’s a lot of churning over the same ground that Anderson has churned over endlessly over the course of his career. He tells us (describing an essay with his colleague Robert P. George), “We argue that, for example, the political institutions and practices surrounding property rights, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of speech are justified because of—and hence limited by—the demands of justice and the common good.” We also hear about how “Certain rights and liberties should be understood as important substantive aspects of the common good, and others as important procedural constraints that prevent the abuse of governmental authority.He even comes around to explaining how academic free speech is necessary for the functioning of universities and how this is the proper analogy for good proceduralism. If Ryan Anderson’s vision of good proceduralism is the tenure system, maybe we should ask the fifteen conservative professors left in the United States how they feel about the protections afforded by tenure.

I’m sure Anderson would respond that this is not what he is arguing at all. No doubt, he would object that he is describing how the academy should function, which is a far cry from how the degraded progressive re-education centers popping up at our elite universities do function. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For one thing, if the argument is that real proceduralism has never been tried, no one’s buying that one any more. And the reason is simple: while elite universities have not always been Democratic Kampuchea cosplay conventions, they have had apprenticeships and the expectation of serious scholarship and tenure. Just like Anderson describes. Those good procedures didn’t stop the slide of the American university into its current state. What basis is there for assuming that good procedures will work when applied in the Republic? Is there any basis?

At any rate it’ll go over great at Anderson’s next after-dinner speech to donors. I even bet some of them will stay awake for it. Now, even if his audience is too sleepy to notice, you might notice that it’s mighty hard to see where the “and” comes in. Indeed, Anderson’s notion seems to be that everyone has to accept liberal proceduralism and a “Civil Rights Uniformity Act” and a “more robust” version of the “First Amendment Defense Act” will protect morality and religion. Trust the system, Anderson tells us, and eventually—and for what would be the first time—the ratchet will have to start turning in the other direction. There’s no reason to abandon Anderson and French’s preferred venues of courts, committee staff counsel offices, and think tanks. And there’s no sense returning to first principles to try to see if a better strategy could be formulated. “We must also avoid supposing that theoretical claims about the purpose of government could, on their own, provide answers to the questions facing us today.

Politics is practical,” Anderson tells us. “It’s concerned with how we should order our lives together in the concrete, given all the givens. It’s directed at action, not abstraction. Thus, it must be concerned with practicalities. We have to focus on practicalities! Nothing is more practical than producing white papers and draft legislation that won’t be enacted any time soon. Or, in all likelihood, ever. Nothing accepts (cheerfully!) what is given like going to court to win small battles with David French while big wars are lost at One First Street. We cannot be concerned with abstractions, like the realization, expressed perhaps a little inexpertly by Sohrab Ahmari (and Brent Bozell before him), that movement conservatives don’t win. Or the mounting horror as one realizes that the ratchet may not even be able to move in the other direction, however much we might want it to.

Particularly galling is Anderson’s rejection of teams and personality-based politics. “While neither French nor Ahmari is entirely correct, we need not feel forced into cheering for one side or the other, into viewing this as a matter of ‘teams,'” Anderson scolds us. “We conservatives need to keep the main focus on ideas, not personalities. We need to think prudently about practical steps we should take—here and now, given all the givens—that will promote the common good.” This seems to mean, given everything that came before it, that David French should be handed the win, and Sohrab Ahmari (and those who think like him) should have the good taste not to complain about it. But given Public Discourse‘s unstinting hostility to integralist thinkers, one would be excused for thinking that Anderson is, in fact, not really all that opposed to the idea of teams as much as he is opposed to idea that anyone might be on a team other than his.

Now maybe I have been unfair to Anderson—the long-running beef between Public Discourse and integralists has involved me from time to time—but if his project differs meaningfully from David French’s project, it’s not clear how. His arguments seem directed for the most part exclusively to Sohrab Ahmari’s position. The defense of liberal proceduralism, the importance of limiting government’s power to make moral decisions, and the rejection of abstractions all seem aimed squarely at Ahmari. One could, in fact, quite justifiably conclude that Anderson, if he doesn’t think French is entirely correct, thinks French is mostly correct. If this is not the case, then it might be nice to know what Anderson thinks French gets wrong.

On Marco Rubio and sincerity

At First Things, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has an intriguing essay, “What Economics Is For.” In the piece, Rubio sets forth his vision of truly dignified work and its importance for the United States. By dignified work, Rubio means basically manufacturing work that pays a wage sufficient to support a family in a comfortable (if frugal) way. Rubio makes the argument that the government ought to support the creation of dignified work in the United States. Rubio sets investment in dignified work against flashy financial maneuvering that produces short-term gains through mere market trickery and pure speculation. According to Rubio, American industry has abandoned meaningful manufacturing work in favor of short-term gains, which has led to damaging economic and social effects. To address this problem, Rubio proposes taxing share buybacks, encouraging physical investment, and other things that would, he argues, foster the creation of dignified work. All of this is pretty extraordinary from a Republican senator, given that the Republican Party in recent years has not been hugely enthusiastic for state intervention in the economy except by means of tax cuts.

Rubio’s position, however, is doubly extraordinary because it is framed in terms of Catholic social teaching. Now, it might be reasonable to question Rubio’s sincerity. Prominent Catholic author Brandon McGinley has already suggested that cynicism about Rubio’s commitment to Catholic social teaching is justified. It would be easy to fit Rubio’s essay into a broader discussion about sincerity and commitment in Catholic politics that goes back a long time already. However, even then, the essay prompts important questions that ought to be answered. For example, what does any politician, not just Marco Rubio, have to do to overcome cynicism about his commitment to the Church’s teaching? Moreover, if one holds Adrian Vermeule’s strategy of integration from within as a viable course for Catholics, does it ever really matter if a given politician is sincere about his articulation of Catholic policy proposals? Isn’t the point that he articulates them? We do not propose specific answers to these questions. However, it is important to start asking the questions.

I.

Rubio begins by citing Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum and continues within the framework provided by the popes building upon Leo’s teaching. He cites John Paul’s critique of unrestrained capitalism from Centesimus annus 43. Considering that the technique of applying red pens and gold pens to economic encyclicals may be said to have begun in earnest with Centesimus annus, one is greatly amused to see Rubio cite a passage that is by no means among the really popular passages of John Paul’s misunderstood encyclical. The upshot of all of this is that Rubio sees the Church’s teaching as a way to break out of the narrow economic categories of “capitalism” and “socialism” toward labor that acknowledges the inherent dignity of workers. Rubio, in fact, critiques the historical conflict between capitalism and socialism in those terms: “Separated from the daily lives of most Americans, where the most important decisions are how to raise children and make ends meet, elite-level politics asks people which abstract economic system they affirm.”

This intervention comes at a time when it is clear that President Donald Trump and at least some of his Democratic rivals would prefer the 2020 election to be framed in terms of capitalism versus democratic socialism. (To be fair, some Democrats have pretty decisively rejected the idea of democratic socialism, too.) It also comes at a time when populism and nationalism are once more on the march in the United States and much of Europe. Rubio’s critique of elite-level politics seems aimed squarely at this debate. An agony between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders about “democratic socialism” and “the American way of life” only serves to elide real concerns about families and wages in an economy that seems indisputably to be governed primarily by the financial sector. It is extraordinary, however, that Rubio sees the Church’s economic teaching as a way to break out of what Rubio calls “an unserious and distracting debate over abstract labels.”

This is especially true when one remembers that there are elements of the American tradition that Rubio could have drawn on to make his case. For example, in 1791, while serving as secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton issued his report on manufactures, which detailed an industrial policy for the United States outlining bases and proposals for state intervention in favor of manufacturing concerns, even as against agricultural operations. Later, in 1861, at the conclusion of his first annual message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the relationship between capital and labor and, indirectly, the importance of work that allowed laborers to improve their condition in life. We can then get into Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, but since modern conservatism is in large part a reaction to Roosevelt and Johnson, it may well be better to avoid those examples. In any event, one could imagine Rubio making his case in a manner that conservatives would love with a few choice quotes from Alexander Hamilton (maybe even juicing it with some of Hamilton’s Federalist contributions) and Abraham Lincoln.

And that piece would be interesting enough. There is an effort underway, spearheaded by Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin at American Affairs, to create a sort of “party of the state” geared toward a coherent industrial policy for the United States. Donald Trump’s willingness to employ state power to further his policy objectives—setting to one side for the moment whatever you make of his policy objectives—makes the project of a party of the state and a real industrial policy particularly timely. This comes, also, at a moment when faith in markets to magically reach ideal solutions is at low ebb. Even if Rubio had written this piece in terms of Hamilton and Lincoln and whoever, his essay would be a welcome contribution to this moment. The idea that the government should exercise its power to promote a vision of industry that benefits Americans materially and spiritually is an important idea and it is good for people in power to talk about it.

II.

Of course, one could justly be suspicious here. Certainly a politician looking to harness some of the energy unleashed by Donald Trump would want to say basically what Rubio is saying. Rubio’s 2016 campaign for the presidency was, despite its flaws, not the act of an unambitious man, and it would be reasonable to assume that Rubio has ambitions for 2024. Furthermore, First Things has tried to move toward the Trump consensus, and has pretty successfully done so. Whether such a view is altogether fair or not, First Things is seen as a major source for the intellectual justification for Trumpism. In other words, Rubio is saying the right things in the right venue in purely political terms. The nods to Leo XIII and John Paul II, while not strictly speaking necessary, sweeten the pitch for First Things readers. While those who have kept track of George Weigel (and the late Fr. Neuhaus’s) “work” on Centesimus annus, might appreciate Rubio’s reference, one could argue that it is maybe a little unlikely that the average First Things reader, by now thoroughly indoctrinated in the myth of John Paul the Capitalist Crusader, would pick up on it. They might assume that Rubio was simply throwing Weigel a bone. The upshot of all of this is that one might conclude that both Rubio and First Things are looking to get in on the “Trumpism after Trump” racket.

But if one assumes Rubio’s insincerity—and few people ever really lose betting on the insincerity of American politicians— and discounts his intervention as a result, one does have to start talking about what authentically Catholic politics in the United States looks like. An American politician presents Catholic social teaching as a way to break out of a stale capitalist-socialist dichotomy and presents some policy proposals. He is discounted because he seems insincere. What do politicians have to do to appear sincere articulating these views? To put it in a less potentially inflammatory way: how should an American politician with these views convince skeptical Catholics he or she is sincere? Now maybe Rubio has unique problems here, as his faith background has been a little complicated. But stop thinking about Rubio for a minute: think about any other politician you like. If he or she came out talking about Catholic social teaching in this manner, what would he or she have to do to convince you that he or she is sincere?

This is an important question. If you follow the Catholic discourse on Twitter, the accusation of “Dadism” is always controversial. One can find all sorts of explanations of what it means, but we think it generally expresses a belief that this or that person is a sellout. The specific mechanism is the idea—implicit or explicit, real or imagined—that fathers have good reasons to adopt positions broadly seen as sellout positions because they have families to think about. There is some hidden gnosis that heads of families have access to that explains why this or that liberal position is the ideal position. Maybe this is real, maybe it isn’t. But it is hardly unusual for radically Catholic commentators to accuse various people of selling out. The feud between Brent Bozell’s Triumph and William F. Buckley’s National Review was at least partially motivated by accusations boiling down to National Review had sold out. Implicit in the accusation of selling out is the accusation that one was not really sincere when one held the views one had before one sold out. If you really believed it, you wouldn’t have sold out.

Additionally, one of the major cracks that has emerged in the fusionist façade is the very real sense that fusionism has not delivered results commensurate with its costs. Catholics have been reliable partners in the coalition that has lost the war over any number of social issues. And there has been a mounting sense that politicians are all too happy to go on losing the war, provided that they can keep raising money on it, campaigning on it, and returning to office to do not too much about it. Likewise Catholic conservative intellectuals will always find work and will never go hungry, provided they support the fusionist consensus. In this, we are reminded of Michael Anton’s infamous essay, The Flight 93 Election. “How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally,” Anton asked at one point. “If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid.”

The opening for illiberal Catholic politics has come at least in part by pulling the curtain back from this arrangement and noting that the liberal fusionists are, in Anton’s pungent phrase, the Washington Generals of American Catholic politics. All of this is to say that sincerity matters in Catholic political discourse in 2019. However, one then has to answer the question posed above: when will we be convinced of a given politician’s sincerity? Certainly, we understand that this is a big question. Americans have had for a long time the experience of spectacularly insincere politicians, even on social issues of the utmost importance. This is true for no one more than for Catholics.

In the alternative, one could ask whether sincerity ought to matter as much as it does. If one adopts a variant of Vermeule’s integration from within strategy, it really does not matter all that much if this or that politician is ultimately sincere in advancing policy proposals motivated by Catholic social teaching. For one thing, while Rubio’s essay is framed explicitly in terms of Catholic social teaching, in order to make his policy proposals attractive to other politicians, it may be necessary to package them differently. For another thing, the point, at least as we see it, of any such strategy is to go about the work of integralism regardless of the formal posture of the state. The sincerity of any given politician in articulating authentically Catholic policy proposals matters, then, much less. The point is that he articulates the policy proposals.

Catholic politics, whatever you want to call them, are gaining prominence as people begin to look to a post-liberal future. At least for now, sincerity is a part of the debate about Catholic politics. If that is the case, then Catholics committed to the Church’s political thought need to start thinking about sincerity. Maybe Marco Rubio is sincere, maybe he isn’t; we were not there when this essay was written and edited. But if his sincerity is a concern, then there really should be a way of resolving that concern. Right now, it is unclear to us how that concern would be resolved in Rubio’s case and it is still less clear how any politician would be able to prove that he or she is sincere when he or she advances authentically Catholic policy proposals.

 

 

I feel great and I support the nation-state

Yoram Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation has just sponsored the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. Broadly, it was a collection of conservative thinkers who are more or less disillusioned with the liberal order. There were some interesting-seeming speakers (Tucker Carlson, Sen. Josh Hawley, Michael Anton, Patrick Deneen) and some much less interesting speakers (Rich Lowry, Richard Reinsch, Rusty Reno) and one appalling speaker (“Amb.” John Bolton). On the whole, it appeared to be a very mixed bag. This sense was confirmed by the Twitter coverage of some of the addresses.

For our part, the conference and the coverage has prompted some thoughts about nationalism or national conservatism or whatever one wants to call it. Broadly we are simply suspicious of the movement. For one thing, Brent Bozell’s Letter to Yourselves and Jean Danielou’s Prayer as a Political Problem seem to be more compelling visions of Christian politics than anything on offer at this conference. Bozell’s clarion cry cannot be repeated too often: “The public life is supposed to help a man be a Christian. It is supposed to help him enter the City of God, and meanwhile it is sup­posed to help him live tolerably, even happily, in the City of Man.” How a revived nationalism or national conservatism or whatever one wants to call this idea (if it be an idea) fits into this vision is a little foggy to us.

For another thing, there is room for some really serious thought about “the nation” in Catholicism. One can cite Aquinas on piety toward one’s country (ST II-II q.101 a.1 co.) or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus or whatever, but it seems to us that there is still room for coherent thought about the modern nation-state in a Catholic context. Not least since the modern nation-state emerged, in many instances, as a part of liberal opposition to Catholic rule. By no means do we claim to have a coherent idea, other than the sense that it would be good if someone engaged in such thought, taking into account not only Aquinas and the medieval examples but also the recent developments under Pius XI and Pius XII. Perhaps someone is doing that kind of thought, though we are far from clear that it was on offer.

In the meantime, turning back to the question of Hazony’s national conservatism conference, we cannot stop thinking about what Dr. William Marshner, writing in Triumph in early 1976, said:

If you assert the existence of a national spirit that gets into the blood and unfolds itself in the whole life of a people, then you cannot arbitrarily lop off vast cultural complexes (TV, movies, books) plus the whole articulate stratum of society (academics, writers, artists) plus the whole dominant class (liberal establishment) plus the great urban centers and call them all “not the real America”

Marshner is responding to a critic of Triumph at National Review—there was, as you no doubt know by now, a long-running feud between Triumph and National Review—but his point has broader resonance. It’s a really difficult point to answer, in fact. One can point to globalists and neoliberal capitalists, loyal to their class above their country, of no fixed abode despite owning multimillion-dollar apartments in New York, London, and Paris, and suggest that these people are alien to the American spirit. But this doesn’t actually answer Marshner’s point, so much as restate the objection to which he is responding.

Marshner provides the answer, though, to the conundrum:

Well, I’ll take money that throughout F.’s argument the talk about “America” is a front. I suspect it has very little to do with the (extramental) country, the people, the ideal or the national Geist. I suspect that F. is as dubious about the world-historical credentials of the real America — the country that tipped the scales against civilization in World War I and has muffed and squandered great-power hegemony since World War II — as I am. I suspect, therefore, that “America” in his text is a stand-in, and that what it stands in for is “the Conservative Movement.”

The answer is a sort of identification between the conservative movement and America the Nation. We suspect that precisely the same sort of thing is going on with the national conservatism moment today. Perhaps it is not a wholesale transformation of movement conservatism into America, but it certainly seems as though aspects of movement conservatism are attempting to put on a little nationalist shine.

Consider how Marshner reached his conclusion in this case:

Think about it: 1) this is the Movement which, if NR defines, Triumph has deserted. In fact, Triumph was never in it, but the fact was not clear to many people until “Letter to Yourselves.” 2) This is the Movement whose gloss on “Duty, Honor, Country” might indeed create problems for a serious Catholic. In fact, in the case of abortion and Countervalue, it already has. 3) This is the Movement, and the only movement, that explicitly excludes all the things F. says are not America from itself and from its constituency. And let me add 4): this is the Movement that claims, in a sense, to be America. It is, simultaneously, the remnant of the patriots, the champion of liberty (hence guardian of the national raison d’être), the true exponent of the Constitution (hence keeper of the national myth).

The logic here is pretty clear. And it seems to be pretty clear in the case of at least some national conservatives. They certainly exclude some things putatively “not America” and claim to represent a Real America. (This of course goes for any number of nationalist types around the world, lest anyone think we’re picking on the national conservatives.)

But it is still difficult to see an answer to Marshner’s original point: how do you exclude the cultural, political, and capital classes from the Real America and contend that there is some national spirit that animates everyone else? Clearly it does not animate everyone else, otherwise the cultural, political, and capital classes would not have been able to achieve their dominance. Unless, as Marshner suggests, what one means when one talks about the Real America is the faction consisting of the members of this or that political tendency. Consequently, there is considerable cause for caution with respect to the national conservative movement.

Marshner went on to point out at length that the movement conservatives did not care very much whether their beliefs were condemned by Pius IX and Leo XIII, who (infallibly, as we never tire of noting) condemned liberalism at great length during their glorious pontificates. And this seems to us to be the fundamental criterion when considering Catholic engagement with any political tendency: is this consistent with the teachings of the Church? There is room for legitimate disagreement about prudential solutions to purely political problems, but there is no room for contradiction of the Church’s teachings in the context of such solutions. And this seems to us to be a serious problem with this new project.

Recall the brief line up we mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Consider individuals like John Bolton, who were keynote speakers at the conference. Is there any doubt that Bolton is simply trying to find some contemporary packaging for the disastrous ideas he has been flogging forever, leading to innumerable human and fiscal catastrophes for the Republic? Consider the ambassadors from National Review at the conference: is there any doubt that, having put out a special issue “Against Trump,” they’re trying to stay current with donors and subscribers, lest their bottom line suffer? Consider Rusty Reno, from First Things: is there any doubt that he is selling what he is always selling, insofar as anyone knows what it is? It is simply true that these people are trying to identify their factions of movement conservatism with the Real America—or simply trying to put new drapes on their very 1980s house.

How many of these speakers are all that interested in conforming to the teachings of the Church of Rome? Even more to the point: how many of these speakers are especially interested in ordering public life in such a way as to make it easier for everyone—especially the poor—to be Christians, to enjoy temporal happiness, and to continue on their way to our heavenly homeland?