Compared to What

Corey Robin defines conservatism as “a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.”

That sounds basically right to me. I might make a couple tendentious emendations:”a defense of inherited patterns of hierarchy and mutual obligation against replacement by the administrative state, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.”

For example, here’s how one historian describes the contrast between 19th century and late 20th century marriage:

What did it mean to be married? In the 1840s, as today, it meant that a man and a woman had become husband and wife. However, what it meant to be a husband or a wife then was strikingly different than today. In legal understanding today (and probably in the experience of many), a wife and her husband are two individuals who have contracted to live together, as a result of which they jointly acquire legal and social privileges and some duties and responsibilities. The identities of husband and wife are held lightly, if at all. We (a complicated “we”) generally retain our prior identities as separate and unrelated individuals. In the words of Justice Brennan, a married couple is “not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional make-up.”‘ To use the language of the model Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, to be married is legally nothing more than an agreement to enter into “a personal relationship between a man and a woman arising out of a civil contract.” One always remains an individual. Just married. Or not.

By contrast, the lawmakers and the theologians who constructed the nineteenth-century marriage ceremony, as well as the women and men who entered into it, expected that the individual identities of women and men would be changed permanently by the ceremony. To become a husband or a wife was to inhabit a legal role, a legal personality, that carried with it strong and stringent public expectations as to conduct and responsibility. That legal person, that collection of legal rights and duties-the husband, the wife existed regardless of an individual’s relative discontent with the identity.

But then the same historian goes on to point out that even before the law changed to permit divorce under most circumstances or to allow our egalitarian conception of marriage to exist, husbands and wives separated from one another all the time– just under the radar, as it were, out of legal sight when they could manage it. The husband or sometimes the wife would make their way off to distant territory to start a new life and leave their old obligations behind. America was a big place, and there never was a golden age (or dark age) in which everyone did as they were supposed to– many or perhaps most people did, but there were still then many ways to escape Sauron’s All-Seeing Eye. Were there more such ways for men than for women? No doubt.

One of my suspicions is that as more and more individuals’ family lives are put under the microscope, fewer and fewer find that they can defend them; in private we take on roles that we would not in public, and the actual economics of contemporary American middle class families are much less egalitarian than the values most of those married people would profess.  But we seem to have less tolerance for hypocrisy as time goes on.

As Plato pointed out, there are few settled relationships that can escape a consistent demand for egalitarianism (via @tcjfs)

Why, I said, the father habitually tries to resemble the child and is afraid of his sons, and the son likens himself to the father and feels no awe or fear of his parents, so that he may be forsooth a free man. And the resident alien feels himself equal to the citizen and the citizen to him, and the foreigner likewise.

Yes, these things do happen, he said.

They do, said I, and such other trifles as these. The teacher in such case fears and fawns upon the pupils, and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher or to their overseers either. And in general the young ape their elders and vie with them in speech and action, while the old, accommodating themselves to the young, are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative…Without experience of it no one would believe how much freer the very beasts subject to men are in such a city than elsewhere. The dogs literally verify the adage and ‘like their mistresses become.’

Having seen how dogs are treated in New York these days, I can believe it. Where I’d differ with Plato (and with Corey Robin it seems), though, is in seeing egalitarianism as indistinguishable from democracy. It seems to me that private relationships of the bourgeois family, and private contracts in the marketplace and workplace, were necessary for a functional democracy to arise– equal rights were demanded from the various agents of the state rather than granted, and liberty was eked out of countervailing forces and competition between multiple institutions, rather than simply arising out of the good will of an all-powerful executive once the old oppressions of patriarch and priest and corporate president are overthrown.

The basic hypothesis of contemporary left-liberalism is that the free individual, unattached to family or faith except by the free exercise of will (and equally able to detach from any bond at such time as he or she chooses), freed from toil by welfare state largesse, bound to a nation and homeland only contingently and by his or her own choice, can by him or herself, through spontaneous organization and activism, impose a democratic will upon an ever more powerful, ever more inquisitive administrative state, and that that state itself, ferreting out improper thoughts or deeds in any competing institution or layer of government, guiding the everyday conduct of life in ever more detail,  is itself a mechanism for ever-greater democracy, with the collective moral sense of everyone everywhere- the Malala Yousafzai within us all, in shared electronic conscilience–  a sufficient safeguard on that administrative state’s own governance, guiding it to good actions and keeping it from bad ones.

This doesn’t seem bloody likely to me. As Scott Alexander says, “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out.” Or as Les McCann puts it:


I love the lie and lie the love
A-Hangin’ on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin’ up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what? C’mon baby!
Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can’t use it!)
Try to make it real, compared to what? C’mon baby now!
The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?

4 thoughts on “Compared to What

  1. Great post. Families are benevolent, socialist, dictatorships. The bonds of familial love and affection make this system workable on this small scale. But not for societies, or even for the various small scale utopian communes who have tried, it doesn’t work. People selfishly look out for themselves and game the system. They break down through some combination of the free-rider effect and the tragedy of the commons, while families make sacrifices for each other, particularly loving parents. What amuses me sometimes about progressivism is an insistence that we can scale up the socialism inherently found in families for societies, while simultaneously undermining the family as a rival source of authority to the state.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deirdre McCloskey has some great lines saying exactly what you are; that the impulse to instantiate a universal family on the society is a natural one, but innately dangerous.


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