Friday, July 15, 2011

Cahoone's Civil Society

Over the years, I have come to believe in this one infallible rule of life. It goes like this. If I am wondering about some problem of political philosophy, chances are that some chap has written a book solving it.

It's obvious, really. I've been spending most of my adult life working and raising a family. And I'm not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer. Not dumb or something, but certainly not genius category.

Now my biggest problem over the years is this. We conservatives need a thinker who will refound the conservative tendency in the latest and greatest concepts from the world of ideas.

Up to now the best that I'd encountered were Michael Novak and his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Berger and Neuhaus and Empowering People.

But they don't light a candle next to Lawrence E. Cahoone and his Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics.

Cahoone begins with a critique of "neutralist" liberalism, the idea that liberals are just neutral adjudicators in the world. In fact, of course, neutralism is impossible, because any political action in the world is action towards a vision of the good. Then Cahoone formulates a "postmodern" conservatism using his deep and broad knowledge of 20th century philosophy. And we are talking here of everyone through Habermas and the neo-pragmatists, the latest, greatest idea that at every level of reality that we experience there are irreducible facts that are not just combinations of elements from a lower level.

The point about conservatism, Cahoone writes, is that it looks at society as a whole, that culture, politics, economics, and living-together are all of a lump; in this lump it is culture that is primary.

Liberals have their own heroic story of individuality and democracy and progress, but the values... are worldly and immanent. Modern conservatism contacts ultimacy via a non-political, ultimate transcendence that is left vague.

Conservatism is big on authority, and authority is an interesting space between compulsion and complete freedom.

Hannah Arendt clears a space for authority. Authority can only exist in the absence of both force and persuasion...

We may characterize, but not explain, the authority in the way Aristotle understands the person with phronesis [practical wisdom or prudence]: the authority is someone who habitually gets it right.

Cahoone has a solid definition for "what government must be or do."

Government must be legitimate and good... These minimal conditions of good government are: assurance of the survival of society... the enforcement of law; prevention of conquest; and avoidance of tyranny, corruption, the intentional punishment of the innocent or the intentional reward of the guilty.

And there is this:

There are four main goods internal to the notion of civil society: membership, freedom, civility, and dignity.

Well, that's a start, and I have not really begun to internalize the breadth and depth of Cahoone's argument. But you'll be getting a lot of Cahoone from me in the near future. After the debacle of Obama we are going to need some really good ideas to get American back to its place as the city on a hill, the last best hope of man for people who must have freedom.

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