Better than folding socks

Struggling to sleep tonight, I had afore me two options: I could match my socks — always a vexing ordeal (Where do those wandering socks go when they leave their partners cuckolded?) — or I could read further in Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace. Persevering, slowly as I do, in my quest to breathe life anew into this humble bastion of young-curmudgeonly thought on the Internet, but, just after three o’clock ante meridiem, unpossessed of the wherewithal to offer thoughts of my own, I thought that I should permit Mr. Berry, the farmer-poet of Lane’s Landing, to speak for me.

If we are serious about reducing government and the burdens of government, then we need to do so by returning economic self-determination to the people. And we must not do this by inviting destructive industries to provide “jobs” in the community; we must do it by fostering economic democracy. For example, as much as possible of the food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small, nonpolluting plants that are locally owned. We must do everything possible to provide to ordinary citizens the opportunity to own a small, usable share of the country. In that way, we will put local capital to work locally, not to exploit and destroy land, but to use it well.

[“Conservation and Local Economy”, page two-hundred-and-four, in The Art of the Commonplace]

Though Berry speaks most specifically of agriculture, and, here, of economics as if people mattered, and I, given the context, wrote of moral fabric, he, more eloquently than I, and I aim for the same target when I, substituting for Mr. Schwenkler, argued, contra Joe Carter, against relying on government at any level, in a federal system or a subsidiarity/sphere of sovereignty system, to cultivate morality. Not only are economic matters and moral fabric not exclusive of each other, but the moral fabric of society, the economic health (and not simply “well-being”) of a place, and the community of that place are all intrinsically interwoven; to separate one strand from the rope is to loosen the entire knot.

Briefly, if we truly believe that small is beautiful, then, as Mr. Berry advises, we must work to cultivate smallness from that level, rather than fatuously assuming that a national government — or the (inter)national economy — , the very antithesis of smallness, can in any meaningful way, other than by negation of policies intrinsically hostile to smallness, contribute to the rebuilding of this agrarian ideal of real, distinct, communities.

Why I’m Not a Libertarian (or a “Conservative”)


[M]ost people who call themselves conservatives are, when you press them, essentially classical liberals, and classical liberals did not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” either. By comparison with their traditional conservative and monarchist foes in the 19th century, they were advocates for centralism and the expansion of the role of the state in the name of reason and liberty. Standardization, rationalization and uniformity in law and regulation were what most classical liberals prized, which is one reason why they tended to be strong nationalists hostile to the customs and privileges of regions and local parlements. The separation of modern strands of classical liberalism from nationalism (i.e., some forms of libertarianism) is a curious by-product of 20th century American politics, and I am guessing that this owes a great deal to influence of exiled liberals from central Europe on the evolution of these strands of American classical liberalism.

[My emphases. – NPO]

In the comments, Daniel McCarthy (to whom I’m personally indebted for giving me the opportunity to review Prof. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power for Young American Revolution) offers a nuanced reply, in which he asserts

Classical liberalism had different strains, some of which were highly centralist and some of which were decentralist. The centralizers generally prevailed in government — just as centralizing non-liberals (like Bismarck) generally prevailed over decentralist non-liberals.

Doubtless, McCarthy is on to something here, but I generally side with Larison (and I’m not entirely comfortable calling Tocqueville a liberal, as McCarthy does; I prefer “liberal conservative”).

And herein lies my fundamental qualm with libertarianism. The ideology (or collection of ideologies) is one of the more true-to-roots modern progenies of classical liberalism, (lacking the pseudo-conservatism of mainstream “conservatives”) — perhaps, according to some libertarians, the successor of Enlightenment liberalism. However, it disavows the State. To me, this is, as I called it before, internally contradictory alchemy. The liberal needs the State.

(McCarthy, in his response, offers a cogent argument in suggesting that the roots of the pairing of liberalism and decentralism in American political philosophy lie with Jefferson and Madison, but I think, at least respecting Jefferson, this assertion oversimplifies matters. Yes, he was very much, in many ways, a liberal, even radically so, but no mere liberal decentralist, he was, as Larison, rather compellingly, long ago asserted, in ways quite conservative, a man not only opposed to consolidation, but to the “power of the ‘moneyed interest'” as well, and a man of the country. That is, rather than merely a “liberal decentralist”, he adhered to and upheld certain liberal and certain conservative tenets.)

Liberals need the state because, ultimately, the foundation of the liberal polity is the individual. Gone is Aristotle’s zoon politikon, and the Philosopher’s fundamental precept, “every community is established for the sake of some GOOD”, specifically the common good, replaced by the Every-man-a-king doctrine of liberalism. Without the State, its origins in necessary contractarianism, mankind, by the liberal creed, exists in a perpetual state of war. Contra liberalism (and, thus, libertarianism), conservatism, rightly conceived, follows Aristotle, appreciating the importance of the individual but recognizing that outside of community, man enters into what Berry calls “vast meaninglessness, […] the freedom of our vices.”

Contemporary libertarianism seeks to dull both edges of the sword; to have its cake and to eat it, too. The libertarian, like the classical liberal, exalts the individual, subordinating any group — the world “community”, the nation-state, the region, or the community — to him; however, he credulously asserts that a society of kings can function without the intervention of the State. He often allows for decentralized government (though is wary even of federalism/subsidiarity, for the local government may expand too much for his tastes, just the same as the national), and offers paeans to communal self-government (that is, anarchy, conservatively understood). This is all well and good, save that the tension remains between the necessarily communal nature of the community government and the “king”‘s desire for self-rule. Without subjugation of the self to the polis — something anathema to the underlying doctrine of individualism —, the libertarian engages in futility, ultimately requiring the development, and consequent overdevelopment, of the selfsame state he sought to avert initially.

Thus, I am not a libertarian; thus I believe that, ultimately, “Fusionism” cannot sustain — as seems to be obvious today —, and that American “conservatism”, really conservative liberalism, is as problematic, if not more so for its untenable attempt to blend conservative values into a framework antipathetic toward community, as libertarianism.

Why I’m Not A Libertarian (Abridged Version)

As, in the process of re-ordering my life (Read: Shirking as much academic responsibility as possible, lest I permit school to continue to obstruct my education.), I make my gradual, but ultimately triumphant, return to maintaining this humble web-log with greater assiduousness, I intend to offer my thoughts on why, though I most definitely sympathize with many currents of libertarian thought, and have supported l/Libertarian candidates, I not only refuse to call myself a libertarian, but ultimately judge that (collection of) ideology(ies) to be dangerous, internally contradictory alchemy destined to thrust society into authoritarianism of the “less intolerable” sort or, by way of “anarchy” — that is, chaotic individualism run amok —, into absolute, abject despotism.

This forthcoming post will require some research and much time on my part, so I make no promises of its appearance here on Nathancontramundi. For now, though, I permit Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky to speak at my behest, explaining marvelously why I abjure libertarianism (as well as the noxious conservative liberalism and “libertarian conservatism”) and embrace conservatism — real conservatism, that is, conservatism of the heart and soul, a conservatism of history, community, and place:

[T]he ability of an organism to survive outside of the universe has yet to be demonstrated. Inside it, everything happens in concert; not a breath is drawn but by the grace of an inconceivable series of vital connections joining an inconceivable multiplicity of created things in an inconceivable unity.


These ways of marriage, kinship, friendship, and neighborhood surround us with forbiddings; they are forms of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape. […] But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaningless. Our choice may be between a small, human-sized meaning and a vast meaningless, or between the freedom of our virtues and the freedom of our vices.”

[“Men and Women in Search of Common Ground”, in The Art of the Commonplace. Italicized emphasis original; bold-faced mine. – NPO.]

Perhaps most significant here is Berry’s linking “small, human-sized meaning” to virtue while he pairs “vast meaningless” — that is, our escape from bondage — with vice. Maybe the Devil really is the ultimate libertarian.

Henry and Hilaire Walk into a Bar

A wonderful, homey pub, actually.

They enjoy a few pints each, the best ales and lagers either had ever enjoyed. The owner-brewer, prevented from expanding into a major regional establishment by differential taxes meant to encourage widespread distribution of property, thereby limiting the banality of a landscape marred with repetition, opted instead to focus on improving the quality of his brews.

Looking to expand his operations, he successfully applied for a grant, receiving money extracted from the coffers of the multi-national Schlitweiser, which mass-produces canned “beer” intolerable to all but college students and “ironic” hipsters. His remarkable brews, paired with his prime location, have made him a successful, and affable, provided of moderately priced libations.

Given the popularity of his neighborhood, and consequent increased property values, the owner had contemplated selling his establishment to the highest bidder. After sweeping tax reforms denied property owners the right to accrue additional benefits from the popularity of the locale, and not the mixing of their labor with the property, he changed his mind, opting instead to continue, happily and proudly, to serve suds to the people in his community, with many of whom he’d grown up.

Would this be such a terrible way of life?


Will, at Dispatches, has a post-Presidents Day post in which, amongst other things, he links, critically, to my Terrapin Times piece on Roger B. Taney. He packs quite a pit into a brief paragraph, so I’ll post it in its entirety and respond as appropriate.

I’m baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?) seems like wishful thinking. I’d also argue that Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable had the South gained independence. Patrick Deneen’s assessment is a bit more balanced.

First, I’m not sure why this baffles Will. Criticism of Lincoln from the Right is nothing new; granted, unfortunately, a fair amount of it comes from certain neo-Confederate paleoconservative/paleolibertarian corners where racism, I suspect, seethes just below the surface, awaiting the day when Jim Crow laws can be revived, perhaps “for the good of” Blacks. However, such denouncements come from conservatives unpossessed of such virulent tendencies. (I like to think that I belong to this latter category.) For instance, long ago (by blogosphere standards), Larison offered this:

Serious conservatives of old (and some still around today) frequently disparaged Father Abraham and rejected the politics that he represented; to the extent that the GOP really was always the Party of Lincoln, conservatives are hard-pressed to ever find a real place in it, since our tradition via the Agrarians and Bradford ties us to the Antifederalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Southern Democrats and Populists.  At each stage of our history, the revolutionary forces of consolidation wanted to transform and do violence to the settled order of American life and sought to damage the constitutional order as well.  At each stage serious conservatives opposed them and their works . . . .

. . .  if “Lincoln Republican” means anything it refers to the post-1865 Republican stranglehold imposed on the country by the post-War arrangements of power . . . .

It was only ten years ago that Bob Dole lectured us about how the GOP was the Party of Lincoln and anybody who didn’t like it could get out right now.  I got the hint when I was still just 17 and never joined the Party of Corporations, Corruption and Consolidation.  Weaver’s argument from definition notwithstanding, Lincoln was certainly no conservative or, if he was a conservative, I would not want to have anything to do with such a conservatism. [Emphasis in the original. – NPO]

Moreover, of course this antipathy toward Lincoln is emerging perhaps more openly now, as we’ve marked his bicentennial. Such anniversaries are frequently the points at which we curmudgeons escape from our cellars long enough to inject politically incorrect vitriol into staid discussion. Pro-Lincoln agitprop (along with pro-Darwin commentary and anti-Darwin screeds) have dominated the media of late; that dissidents would keep opinions to themselves is neither to be expected nor desired.

Of course freeing the slaves ought to count for something; as far as I know, none of us expressing our disapproval of the Great Emancipator have denied that this was a good thing. I fully challenge the notion that ending slavery was Lincoln’s principal intention — if, initially, an intention at all (I’ll not pretend to know what motives drove him from deepest within.) —; preserving the Union, for better or for worse, I think, is what he sought to do. That the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed slaves only in states over which Washington had no de facto authority — and in those parts of the Confederacy over which the Union had regained control (a fact seemingly lost to too many critics of Lincoln) — suggests an unwillingness, or ambivalence, at least at first, respecting the issue.

I certainly agree that expecting to see the end of slavery, at least any time soon, by way of “letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?)” is wishful thinking. I certainly had no intention of making such a suggestion when I noted that Taney manumitted his own slaves. I make mention of that only to suggest (specifically to my primary audience; more on that below) that, dreadful and mistaken as his Dred Scott opinion was, Taney was not a complete beast.

Slavery is unequivocally immoral, a particularly sad stain on this nation’s sad history. However, I’m not at all convinced that the liberation of Black slaves into a Southern society in which de jure discrimination and, notwithstanding the Fourteenth Amendment, de facto inequality reigned and into Northern cities where the absence of slavery and the chimera of tolerance did little to meliorate the fact that Blacks often remained second- (perhaps third-)class citizens justifies the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans, more deaths than every other war, Revolution through Vietnam, combined.

How could we have ended slavery otherwise? I don’t pretend to know. Perhaps, as Will suggests, had the South been left to its own devices, Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable. On the other hand, that a South not embittered by bloodshed, conquest and Reconstruction, Sherman’s rape of Georgia, and the quashing of the important Constitutional question of secession (More below.) and states’ rights, could have gradually ended slavery and slowly developed, more organically, healthier race relations is not, I submit, impossible. I may reveal naïvety by expressing such an opinion, but, left with few options, I’m willing to entertain it.

Ultimately, for me, the question of slavery is almost irrelevant to my personal assessment of the sixteenth president. Rather, his willful violation of the Constitution (the fundamental point of my Taney piece), nationalism/centralism, refusal to negotiate with the secessionists over the legal transfer of Fort Sumter (and other forts) to the Confederacy (which could have precluded the attack that incited the War Between the States), and being beholden to corporate interests inform my judgment. That emancipation resulted from his war wins him a few points, but that it was such a bloody, dubious war that brought forth this result suffices to negate much of the gain here.

The Taney piece to which Will responded will be on the front page of the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times. The fact is that I’m running a beleaguered-from-the-get-go right-of-centre paper on a heavily liberal/apathetic campus; running a piece like this is something I’m doing because a) Provocation draws attention and b) Notwithstanding the great flaw of Taney’s, I believe that people ought to realize the important of Taney qua judge in Ex parte Merryman whose opinion was most recently reaffirmed in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Had I written a piece about Lincoln, I, doubtless, should have dedicated more of the piece to criticizing him, but I also should have offered at least a small bone to the vastly more numerous pro-Lincoln crowd.

On the question of secession, I hold firmly no opinion. Unwilling to say that the States definitely possess the right to secede, I’m even more loath to submit that they lack such a right. Doubtless, whatever the Constitution says, I suspect that many States’ leaders failed to realize the Hamiltonian machinations at work to guarantee that, regardless of what they all believed, whatever right to re-establish autonomy would slip into the mists of history courtesy of the centralizing tendencies of Madison’s document.

The Maryland Corner: “Redeeming Roger Taney”

(from the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times, the first installment of our new feature, dedicated to important political figures, past and present, on the Right from Maryland, tentatively called The Maryland Corner)

Americans have a way of spinning history to bolster our national mythology. JFK’s foreign policy was nightmarish — to speak nothing of his personal life —, yet we extol him. FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court, interned Japanese-Americans in numbers that dwarf the count of unfortunate souls at Guantánamo, and eagerly collaborated with the murderous Stalin, but idolizing him as the conqueror of the Depression and scourge of the Axis powers is much more palatable than embracing the truth. 

Then there is Abraham Lincoln. Ignoring that he needlessly sanctioned the bloodiest war in American history and put the kibosh on the important question of whether states, sovereign when they entered into the great experiment in liberty, could secede and reassert their autonomy, we revere the sixteenth president as a great liberator, the savior of the Union. We relegate Maryland native and Lincoln antagonist Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to the deepest pits of Hell for his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford.

Yet, ironically, as we begin at least four years under our first Black president, a man esteemed as the new Lincoln, we ought to look for inspiration to no less a man than the estimable author of that loathsome Dred Scott decision.

Roger Brooke Taney, of Calvert County, was hardly perfect; he was, however, more complex than many would care to admit. His opining that Blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and thus ineligible for citizenship, is detestable. Nevertheless, he had personal qualms with the “peculiar institution,” and manumitted his own slaves. A dual-federalist, he stood firmly between ardent states’ rights champions and the advocates of centralization, proud of his Southern heritage and a lover of Maryland, but a loyal American who sought the preservation of the Union. 

Most important today, as our government continues to expropriate powers at the cost of our God-given liberties, Taney stood up to Lincoln’s antipathetic attitude toward the Constitution. After the mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, to the president’s consternation, proclaimed that they would permit no more Union troops to transfer through their respective jurisdictions, Lincoln instructed General Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus within the area of the military line. 

Obeying the governor’s orders, Lt. John Merryman, of the Baltimore County Horse Guards, burned bridges to prevent additional Pennsylvania soldiers from entering Maryland; not long thereafter, he was arrested on charges of treason. Numerous Maryland legislators soon found themselves incarcerated for no obvious reason. 

Enter Roger Taney. Presiding over the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, Taney, in Ex parte Merryman, reaffirmed that the president lacks authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus — a power expressly delegated to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. A defiant Lincoln persisted, widening the scope of the territory wherein the writ was held in abeyance. Employing arguments frightfully comparable to — but exceedingly more eloquent than — those to which we have grown accustomed in this tumultuous decade, Lincoln asked rhetorically of Congress, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Orwellian reverence for the rule of law at its finest.

Taney’s comprehension of liberty was incomplete, perhaps unforgivably so. That President Obama intends to try to suspend the writ of habeas corpus is dubious. However, given Obama’s vision for expanding government’s role in the economy, embrace of the Pax Americana ideology, and, more relevant, support for the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA “compromise,” one is right to fear for his liberty. If we look beyond his imperfections, in Roger Taney we see a Marylander of whom we should be proud and whose spirited defense of the Constitution we should aspire to mimic.