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Tuesday, June 30, A.D. 2009
Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 13-18

(This is a continuation of my posts on Jame Burnham’s liberalism test from A.D. 1964. You may access the related posts at the bottom of this entry.)

13. Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.

My friend Andrew pointed out to me that people often confuse individual and institutional morality. I do not have a firm opinion on this matter, though I am sure that our notions and principles of morality apply first and foremost to the individual. It seems to me that a “people” can be moral if the bulk of its individuals are moral. However, I suspect that we speak metaphorically when we apply the name “moral” to anything besides an individual rational agent. Similarly, I do not think that moral notions such as “duty” apply to institutions without several qualifications.

Certainly, there are appropriate ends for corporate human endeavors. A baseball team has a set of ends, and we might say that the team qua team has certain ends and perhaps even duties, such as to win, to follow the rules, and to adhere to good sportsmanship. We expect such from the ball players and from the team collectively. Yet, it is important to remember that the team qua team consists of individual men who make it to be what it is. A team is not simply the sum of its individual players, but the causal power that makes a team a team resides in those players and in their relations to each other. Joint human endeavors are not wholes like machines or puzzles that render their parts meaningful. As man is a social animal, there may be something like that principle that operates at the human level, too, but it is not the same. I am no individualist, but there is something complete and ineffable about the individual human being who cannot be justly reduced to a cog in a greater machine.

As such, I am wary to attribute moral duties to anything besides moral agents, such as men. Nations as corporate bodies may have duties—ends that are determined by their reason to be—but such duties differ from those of an individual person. I think, therefore, that states exist for the commonwealth of their members, not the commonwealth of everyone else. Thus, the United States of America have no charitable duty toward other states or to the members of other states. The gospel teaches us that, as men, we ought to help the poor, but there is no divine injunction for states.

The reason for this should be clear. When individual men practice charity, they reap a reward in the development of their characters. They emulate God’s giving example and become greater men. No such process occurs for an institution. Moral virtue is something cultivated by human beings, not corporate bodies.

14. Colonialism and imperialism are wrong.

I have a somewhat amoral—perhaps even Darwinian—approach to international affairs. I wonder if the national striving for more power, more land, and more people is simply the collective version of a man who strives for a better station for himself and for his family in his own society. As a conservationist, it saddens me to see the disruption of stable societies and cultures. However, when I consider human history, such eruptions are often creative destruction. The Roman legions upended traditional ways of life around Europe, Asia, and Africa, and, yet, such disruptions in tradition led to marvelous new cultures and civilizations. A part of me would like permanent, everlasting polities and peoples, but I recognize that life evolves, and such a process involves decay as it does generation.

That said, I hold that some developments are better and that some are worse. As such, certain colonial and imperial ventures are better and some are worse. I think that the Hellenistic and Roman expansions were overall positive developments in the ancient world. I think that the Mohammedan conquest, while it did produce some remarkable cultural mixing and civilizational jewels, was generally a negative historical process.

Of course, when Leftists speak of colonialism and imperialism, they do not mean those developments as human realities throughout history; they simply concern themselves with the West’s rise to global supremacy in the modern period. We cannot really expect such foggy thinkers to say what they mean. Anyway, as a development, I think that we see mixed results, and history continues to unfold. I think that the spread of superior Western ways has been positive, but it occurred at the time of—and was facilitated by—severe confusion in the Western world. The modern system that allowed for economic and martial superiority also poisoned the cultures of Europe, and Western expansion has spread such a virus around the world.

15. Hotels, motels, stores and restaurants in southern United States ought to be obliged by law to allow Negroes to use all of their facilities on the same basis as whites.

The liberal in me has always rejected “civil rights” legislation that allowed the state to dictate whom a private business must serve. I think that commerce is an extension of the ability to join freely in associations. I have no problem with the state’s regulation of business to ensure that it does not cheat or harm its customers, but I do not understand why the state in a liberal commercial republic should concern itself with the affairs of consenting, informed adults. If a business wishes to exclude potential customers, then it should be allowed to do so. Such is an odd enforcement of public morality.

If, on the other hand, we were to have a society where the laws and the state enforced morality extensively, then I could see how such laws might make sense. Irrational (as opposed to rational) discrimination must harm the souls of those who practice it, and a wise regime that looks after the virtue of its citizens would outlaw such harmful practices. Sparta is always an option for a regime. Yet, such is quite different from the American tradition, where men are exhorted to virtue voluntarily rather than through the mechanism of state control and violence.

Lastly, as I wrote in the answer to question 1, a healthy society would be rather homogeneous, wherein such tribal exclusions could not occur. Whether racist or rational, the Liberian project was a sensible one. Had it been successful, the American nation would be far healthier today rather than in a state of decay.

16. The chief sources of delinquency and crime are ignorance, discrimination, poverty and exploitation.

If one holds that vice is a form of ignorance along the lines of Socratic reasoning, then I might possibly agree with a highly modified form of this proposition. As it is commonly interpreted, I disagree completely. Mistreatment scars the soul of both the mistreater and the mistreated, and “exploitation” may help to engender vice. One’s upbringing, personal experiences, and education likewise mold one’s soul. Yet, we must hold that one is ultimately responsible for his own character or else nothing is; the moral buck must stop somewhere. For if we are simply borne along like dead leaves on the wind, then we exercise no agency of our own and are not accountable for anything. Some folks may claim that they hold such a view, but they certainly do not hold it consistently or deeply. As with the nihilists, moral determinists cannot get through a day without contradiction.

Once we affirm the principle of individual accountability, then this proposition falls apart. Delinquency and crime, along with the supposed causes listed above, are caused by vice, and vice is caused by making many bad choices that slowly pervert the soul. When one is raised among the vicious, then it is likely that one will also be vicious. Yet, at some point, one has to claim responsibility for his own character.

It should be readily apparent that poverty does not cause vice. Immigrants who come to America with nothing quickly rise through our socially mobile society. Their industry, self-discipline, and talents allow them to escape poverty. By contrast, a native from a middle class background who starts down the dark path may end up destitute or in prison because he becomes tangled in self-destructive behavior. Statistically, the chief causes of poverty in the United States are substance abuse and single motherhood, and you can see how vice leads to both conditions. As Lady Ann has said, if you do not become a druggie or a drunk and if you do not let yourself get knocked up, then you are very unlikely to be poor. Of course, children who are born to vicious parents do not have such clear choices. Yet, at some point, one has to claim responsibility for himself. As a social policy, we could execute or imprison substance abusers and sterilize fornicators, which would result in huge social benefits. The authoritarian virtuous regime is always an option, but . . .

17. Communists have a right to express their opinions.

As I wrote in the answers to questions 2 and 12, a commonwealth ought to establish parameters for public discourse that reflect and uphold the regime’s order and the citizens’ values. However, I would allow for free inquiry and expression in designated institutions like universities where such could be productive in the pursuit of truth. So, men could freely debate Marxist views in such places, but they could not be Communists. Communism is not simply an ideology but a political movement within organizations. A sensible regime would not allow such organizations to operate in its land.

18. We should always be ready to negotiate with the Soviet Union and other communist nations.

I think that a state’s foreign policy should advance its own interests. If negotiation and diplomacy work better than other options, then they should be employed. With more forceful methods, one must consider the costs and benefits. Human life, whether of one’s own nation or of foreigners, should heavily figure into the calculation.

Links to this series of posts:

“Are You a Liberal?”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Prelude”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 1-6”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 7-12”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 13-18”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 19-24”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 25-31”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 32-39”

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, June 30, Anno Domini 2009
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