What is Paleoconservatism, Part V: The Fatal Attraction of Politics

The Role of Government

In striking out on our own, we did not intend to surrender the wisdom painfully acquired by earlier generations of classical liberals, libertarians, and small-government conservatives.  If government interference in private life was a major source of social and moral dissolution, then it made no sense to call upon governments to save the family, restore community, or promote great art.

In calling for a restoration of manhood and womanhood and family autonomy, we were not so naïve as to believe that some think tank or magazine or gaggle of political intellectuals could draw up a package of magical legislation, complete with taxes and incentives that would restore American social life.  On the contrary, we knew that things would probably get much worse before the first steps could be taken toward restoration.  But having an ideal in mind, we also knew that we had to oppose any social legislation, whether it came from far left Democrats or center left Republicans, that did not shift power and wealth--however slightly--away from government and toward families and local communities.

Such an approach is both practical and principled, and its practitioners are not likely to be taken in by Potemkin Village projects that go by the name of “revenue sharing” or “the new federalism” or “school choice.”  If a voucher plan will increase the power of the federal government over private schools (as most proposals will), it is necessary to oppose them, along with national legislation in favor of the family, restricting divorce, and defining life.  When we have a Christian country, it will be time enough to consider expanding the social authority of the state.

Ordinarily, conversion is a process undergone by persons and families, kindreds and communities.  We do hear of tribal leaders who compelled their Frankish and Anglo-Saxon barbarian subjects to accept baptism, apparently believing that Christian rituals were like magic talismans and rabbits’ feet.  These mass conversions did provide security for Christians and offered encouragement to those who were seriously interested in the Faith, but in the end we are all like the Hercules at the crossroads, when he had to decide between the charms of Virtue and Vice.  This is a depressing thought for all the born followers who believe that by electing a president or passing legislation they are doing something practical to change the world.

What is true of Christian conversion applies to all attempts at moral, social, and aesthetic reform.  It  has taken several centuries for the revolutionary left to infiltrate and corrupt all the institutions of our common life, and, short of poisoning the drinking water in every faculty lounge, bishop’s study, artist’s studio, and television station in Europe and North America, there is little that can be improved by direct action.

I have already pointed out in general terms the folly of any government project to restore the family, and it is always amusing to hear the appeals made by pro-family conservatives who call upon the United States, the United Nations, and the governments of the world to rescue the family.  To put the family values in a very small nutshell—which, being composed of small-minded nuts, is where it belongs, they do not understand the nature of the problem and, therefore, can only make the plight of the family worse than it is already.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

14 Responses

  1. Konstantin Solodov says:

    The Ancien Regime (or Pericles’s golden age) exists once, it cannot be returned and the restoration is impossible.

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    Before government interference the basic survival unit was the family. A strong family meant survival. Once government started interfering the need for that strong unit lessened and now today has almost disappeared. Los Angeles schools, e.g., feed students breakfast and lunch and provide childcare on holidays. Much of healthcare is provided by school nurses and what’s not is provided by other levels of government. Housing is provided by the government either entirely or with rent subsidies. Food comes by a variety of programs. I once researched the many kinds of welfare agencies and programs and found there were dozens–county, state, federal–and many of them overlapping. I don’t think this is the entire answer to the destruction of the family unit but it has to be a powerful disincentive to first get married and then have children and for the couple to stay together–and for the children to work and contribute.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger has pointed to a major engine of social destruction: the government’s absorption of family functions. This was always done in the name of charity and humanity by social engineers who claimed that, first, the family was being eroded by social pressures and the government needed to step in to provide assistance–this was the moderate argument invoked often by people describing themselves as conservatives. The second more radical position was more or less Marxist: the family historically was a cause of patriarchy and dysfunction and needed either to be eliminated or at least enfeebled. Although the positions seem opposed, the two sides worked hand in hand to destroy the family, often under the guise of saving it. I knew many of these people, attended lots of meetings including the first meeting of the World Congress of Families, which was more like the World Conspiracy Against the Family.

    Does anyone know where Mr. Solodov got the idea that anything in these paragraphs has anything to do with restoring the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome? One cannot even restore the world of the 1950’s, much less the 18th century, and nostalgia, especially short-term nostalgia is a very destructive impulse. One cannot, Heraclitus is supposed to have observed, step into the same river twice, and even last week is beyond our ability to restore, and “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” But even Heraclitus was aware that beneath the rippling surface of phenomena there was a pattern or structure, which he represented as Fire, an everflowing energy that could be equated as a ration with everything else. This was the source of the Stoic understanding of the logos that gave philosophical weight to the Roman understanding of natural law.

    The male/female distinction is older than the human race, far older, and it dictates the unequal distribution of responsibilities that underlies the human family. Aristotle understood this, and so did Robert Filmer, Saint Thomas, and the great Althusius who speaks of the organic dyad. Apparently, though, Mr. Solodov does not believe even in organic processes that limit human capacity.
    this is the social Lysenkoism that joins the various parties of the Left into a war against human nature. That is the only conclusion that I can draw from his comment.

  4. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Althusius is a strange choice for catholic.

    Even if you understand the restoration as a return to the pattern, how can you be sure that it has a form of unequal distribution of responsibilities only. Why this logos cannot be dual or triple? Ocasio-Cortez is a reality, as well as, Nominalism is near with Realism.

    You like the Stoic – Errare humanum est. Even Heraclitus and Thomas Fleming are not the exceptions.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I thank Mr. Solodov for once again confirming what I have said. Once again taking refuge in gnostic abstractions that have no bearing on reality, you appear to think thinking comes down to affixing labels like nominalism and Catholic. As if Thomas would have shunned Arisotle as a pagan. The example of AOC as exceptional is more evidence of social Lysenkoism. First, one would have to show that a silly female who smiles at the camera and demonstrates an incapacity for rational thought is not typically feminine–the aging flirt is a well-established type. But suppose she were wildly eccentric and played football, raped girls, ate babies. Since when do such deviations from the norm count for anything in a discussion of the enduring claims of human nature. Go to a good zoo some time and observe the primates. You’ll learn more about our nature than from any book of mystical philosophy.

    These questions were addressed at great length and to the tedium of readers in my first book. Because incurious readers found the evidence of anthropology and endocrinology boring, I have decided to go over the book with the inimitable Rex, whose job will be to keep the argument to a more editorial level. For anyone unwise enough to have obtained The Politics of Human Nature, we’ll be doing a podcast on chapter one tomorrow.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    David Hume dealt with this question of what is human by proposing to examine a variety of societies–he only had 18th century Europe, the Greek and Latin classics, the Bible, and a few travelers’ tales to go on. He argued that when societies of different types converge in something like male dominance or marriage, one could take the examples as normative. That was the method I used for much of PHN. An interesting social psychologist, who wrote a book on the family, adopted a useful technique that has been often followed, namely, to take the supposed exceptional cases–like the alleged power given to women by the Iroquois or alleged examples of societies without marriage or property or violence. Close examination of course eliminates the exception. One zany female anthropologist wrote a book on the !Kung bushmen in which she argued they were nonviolent, but she made the mistake of counting violent incidents and comparing them with the greater frequency of such episodes in modern life. She failed to take into consideration the obvious fact that her society had fewer than 100 people, making their rate of violence alarmingly high. This is where Lysenkoism gets you. I am sure everyone recalls Stalin’s favorite scientist who thought you could make wheat grow in cold climates by exposing seeds to cold.

  7. Konstantin Solodov says:

    The affixing of labels (Lysenkoism) is your style, I can learn only.

    You are confirming that Ocasio-Cortez is a beloved personage and my choice is correct. She is worse than a pagan for you. As Zwingli was worse than the papists for Luther.

    You, with yours “Paleoconservatism”, Ocasio-Cortez and the entire spectrum between are reality. I can like or dislike both, but all of you are reality and you are parts of one culture.

    Let’s go back to “the restoration” which you mentioned in the text.

    Do you understand the restoration as a return to the pattern?
    If yes, why this pattern has a form of unequal distribution of responsibilities only?
    What is a source of Ocasio-Cortez? What is a name of this Fire?

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am afraid I don’t know what you are talking about. Whatever it is, you make one thing clear, namely, that you are unwilling to follow the argument or respond to rational objections. From Locke to Marx to Dewey to the current generation of reality-deniers, the argument that man has no fixed nature is the justification for social and moral revolution. My very simple argument is that they are wrong on observable facts of human nature. I am happy to respond to rational challenges, e.g., evidence of female-dominated societies or societies without property or status, but such objections have to be presented explicitly.

  9. Konstantin Solodov says:

    I asked to answer for one question: Do you understand “the restoration” as a return to the pattern?
    Otherwise I don’t see a reason to mention the ideas of Heraclitus.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Let me explain the reference to Heraclitus. A simplified intellectual history would point out that Greek thought diverged in the early 5th century, one stream leading to Parmenides, with his emphasis on the unity of being and a contempt for sensory data, and the other leading to skepticism by way of Heraclitus, who emphasized the validity of sensory data–which is why he said most men lived as if they were asleep (that is, caught off from the data) and the fluidity of experience. All this is true enough, yet Parmenides was perfectly aware he was not describing everyday reality and wrote the Way of Seeming as a possible way of looking at it, and Heraclitus, in choosing fire as the arche–the source and underlying being of everything in this world–was not only emphasizing mutability but also seeking a pattern behind the mutability. In one sense, we could see Plato as attempting to reconcile hte two approaches.

    As for restoration, it is not going to happen in my lifetime or my children, because it is not the sort of thing that can be done with bayonets or laws. Human nature either exists or does not, and if it exists, it cannot be suppressed so long as there is humanity–a question CS Lewis thought in doubt when I was a small child. The experience of revolutionary governments does not encourage faith in their success. Communists were supposed to eliminate property and hierarchy but, as Djilas memorably put it, they eliminated all forms of property not their own. We always revert to the ape, though the results of such reversions are rarely pretty.

    No one society can be a useful, much less perfect model for another. Where societies converge on a norm, a norm that can be explained by 1) evolutionary advantages, 2) neural and hormonal pressures, with analogies to our nearest relations on the scala naturae, then we can be fairly confident that, for example, the sexual dimorphism of the human race, which extends to neurological development and hormonally triggered behavior patterns (such as aggression in men) as witnessed in a wide variety of different types of human society, has formed us as ineluctably as the Creator is said to have created us: Male and female created he them. That is all I am going to say on a topic that we are going to take up in a series of podcasts based on my first book.

  11. Konstantin Solodov says:

    “we knew that things would probably get much worse before the first steps could be taken toward restoration. ”
    should this restoration be understandable as a return to the ape? to the barbarism?

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Apes, savages, barbarians, civilized Greeks, Romans, Chinese and even Russians converge on certain norms. Now there is such a thing as hypertrophism, both in the overdevelopment of physical attributes, such as the massive antlers on the Irish elks that would have been rewarded with a more lavish sex life but diminished the species’ ability to survive, and in the over-development of male sexuality in Muslim sheikhs and Mormon elders. I used to agree with Old Mark’s dictum that “You can get too much of a good think, but too much bourbon whiskey is just enough,” but I have come to see that here too one can suffer from hypertrophism.

    Naturally, there are two extremes. The most obvious among ideologues and fanatics is what Maritain called ‘angelism” in his critique of Descartes, but there were Romantics who went in the other direction for which primitivism is inadequate. I suppose we could coin–improperly–a term like simianism and apply it to John Milius and other admirers of Conan the barbarian.” (I used to have a very nice colleague, a good middle class Midwesterner who loved the Conan books. We used to call him Conan the Rotarian.)

  13. Konstantin Solodov says:

    The Paleoconservatism is very fascinating.

  14. Dominick D says:

    Did the Podcast ever post? I had a little trouble with PHN. I don’t see anything about it in the podcast section; maybe I just have trouble with webistes, too!