First off, I direct you to the threads for lots of good stuff—including very complicated and smart musings by Escoffier on just how strange Mansfield’s interpretation of Machiavelli is, together with a Big Mach numerology puzzler (for those who care about such stuff).

Other news: The stock market is way up, based on confidence that debt limit thing will be resolved. And the Republican poll numbers from the WSJ are just terrible. Surprisingly (I say ironically), they’re being blamed for EVERYTHING.

I’ve been playing around with Dr. Pat Deneen by calling him a Marxist. He seems genuinely offended. But I mean no offense. There’s a lot Marx is at least semi-right about. I once was the discussion leader at a Liberty Fund conference about Marx and Mill. The rep from the LF said he was astonished that anyone could speak well about Marx for any reason.

Pat’s most persuasive retort to me is basically that he’s a follower of the sociologist Robert Nisbet. Here’s what that social theorist says: Modern individualism is the cause of modern statism. The inability to keep Locke in the Locke box—and the resulting withering away all the various “intermediary institutions”—leave the lonely, shivering individual with no choice but to cling to dependency on an omnicompetent state. And it’s individualism (that “heart disease” that makes us apathetically indifferent to the fate of our fellow citizens), Tocqueville says, that makes us all easy prey for despots.

Tocqueville might be interpreted to talk up the ways American combat individualism—from local political institutions to free associations to religion to even the family—as existing in fact but not in principle in America. They are fortunate aristocratic inheritances that might very likely fade away over time. The Americans don’t properly appreciate these relational institutions as anti-individualistic, and so they could easily be swept away by justice Lockean style. Consider what’s happened, Nisbet might say if he were around right now, to marriage and the family, religion, and local government. We can’t blame these changes on those evildoing progressives! Nonetheless, they do facilitate progressive statism. Some of our most enthusiastic statists are single moms and lonely old members of the AARP. What choice do they have?

Consider that James Madison’s defense of conscience as the most sacred of all property is implicitly anti-ecclesiastical. It’s certainly not about the effectual exercise of conscientious freedom through the relational institution called the church—an organized body of thought and action. Conscience, after all, is knowing with others. Does that anti-ecclesiasticism display itself in Obama’s indifference to the freedom of churches not to be disciplined by government mandates?

So, from Nisbet’s view, the American revolution wasn’t different enough from the French revolution, the revolution which comprehensively and audaciously aimed to destroy all relational entities between the individual and the state.

I have a lot of problems with this narrative. But it really does have some truth to it. Enough, perhaps, to challenge the Founders good/Progressives bad narrative in ways Carl hasn’t mentioned yet.

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Articles by Peter Lawler


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