In previous posts I have outlined as briefly as possible the development of the ideas that animate our current political condition. With this background, we are in a position to evaluate the contending factions and suggest the wisest path forward.
American politics is shaped by the conflict between radical progressivism and the liberal-conservative alliance. The primary flashpoints of this conflict are well known: immigration, freedom of speech, religious liberty, domestic economic inequality, unemployment, the right to bear arms, abortion, the relative size of government, digital privacy, globalization, etc. These issues and others are often extremely complex. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, it should be recognized that often we lack the information and training to address the details of a given topic with expertise. Politicians know this, which is why they employ rhetoric and manipulative advertising techniques rather than education. Rather than getting bogged down in technical questions we cannot answer or reacting emotionally, we should look at the philosophical principles that animate various factions and policy proposals. Turn down the noise, turn off social media feeds, and examine the foundations.
Contemporary progressivism is based on a blend of utilitarianism and Marxism (old and new). Both of these theories are significantly flawed. Utilitarianism suffers from the incommensurability of diverse satisfactions, the impossibility of actually calculating satisfactions, and most importantly the fallibility of human predictive powers. There is just no way to predict what will lead to aggregate satisfaction over the long-term, especially for diverse and complicated populations.
Marxism is flawed historically and anthropologically. Basically, Marxism is just too reductive. The dialectic of group oppression is not the ultimate truth of history or society. Similarly, human beings are not primarily defined by economic status or victimization. Rather, human beings are defined by their distinguishing ontological powers, namely, reason and will. Finally, it is worth noting that the utopian aspirations of radical progressivism — eliminating all inequality and suffering — bespeak a kind of political rationalism that should have long ago been rejected.
However, not everything is well on the side of liberal-conservatism. From a classical perspective, it is possible to see some merit in Marx’s critique of capitalism. Capitalism ignores the common good, reduces human labor relationships to a mere commodity, encourages excessive competition — traditional societies emphasize harmony — , and fosters greed, which is a vice. And many of these problems may be traced by to the truncated individualistic anthropology of liberalism. To be sure, classical liberals are right to emphasize self-governance and personal responsibility, but they do so on the basis of a flawed understanding of the human person. This fact makes political engagement in America difficult because although radical progressivism is erroneous and clearly destructive, the individualism of classical liberalism is flawed. This is especially the case when liberalism becomes unmoored from history and place (see libertarians and neo-cons).
It should be evident that out of the various perspectives examined, conservatism is the least problematic. It is wise to emphasize community, character, custom, public religion, and political skepticism. However, what conservatives have lacked is a clear theoretical basis or sufficient basis for correcting capitalism and individualism. Probably the best option is the traditional idea of the common good. To be sure, conservatives should uphold the importance of self-governance, private property, and constitutionalism; traditional societies have too often neglected these matters. Nevertheless, the American legacy of classical liberalism needs to be significantly augmented by a greater commitment to solidarity in the pursuit of a shared life of virtue.
In brief, the political common good is the prudent, just, and decent development of basic goods and services, and since prudence is an important part of the common good, solidarity will be significantly adapted to the time, place, and customs of the underlying community. In the case of America, this would mean that virtuous community should respect the value of private-property, self-governance, federalism, and the U.S. Constitution; in the American context, solidarity should be pursued within this context. At the same time, the common good requires a significant reform of capitalism and individualism. These are complicated matters, but basically, there is a general theme: decentralization.
Regarding capitalism probably the most important thing to do is encourage and protect small business (especially local businesses). These enterprises should be favored because they bring about a broader distribution of productive property, which in turn decreases dependence and increases stability. Basically, this is the Catholic idea of distributism, but in an American setting where there is already a legacy of small businesses. And interestingly, it addresses one of the key claims of Marxism. According to Karl Marx, western societies only became exploitatively capitalistic when labor was separated from the means of production. To some degree, distributism ameliorates this problem.
In America, probably the best way to overcome individualism is not through federally imposed programs or rules, but by protecting and fostering those places where real community actually happens: states, cities, counties, churches, neighborhoods, schools, et cetera. Wherever possible, power and governance should be decentralized, not down to the individual but to those groups and institutions where real community occurs. This means respecting the customs, values, and priorities of “local communities” even when these groups do not adhere to the elite values of Washington, D.C., universities, and corporate boardrooms. In pursuing this approach one would be practicing the Catholic value of subsidiarity. At the same time, it is in keeping with the American tradition of federalism and limited government and conservative concerns about authentic community.
In sum, given its intellectual history and the actual available options, the wisest political path for America is a form of conservativism, grounded in the common good that preserves the American heritage of liberty and empowers local communities and small businesses. Doing so would go a long way toward creating a more unified, just, and self-governing America.