I was deeply honored to contribute a response to Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith‘s essay “Faith and the Compatibility of Science and Religion”, published in The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Reflections on Faith, Science, and Economics (Acton Institute 2017).
Lost in Methodenstreit: Reflections on Theory, History, and the Quest for a Science of Association
In my contribution to What is Classical Liberal History? , edited by Michael Douma and Phil Magness, I sought to offer a reflection on some of the epistemological and methodological problems that arose with the development of classical liberal thought. These problems can be seen in the successive methodological battles in which classical liberals have found it necessary to engage both in justifying their approach to creating a science of human action and in their working out of the historical, moral, and political implications of this science. I suggest that as classical liberal thought has developed into a distinct intellectual tradition that now seeks to narrate its own theory and history, its adherents have largely ignored addressing what may be the central historical puzzle that classical liberalism is challenged to solve. In failing more intentionally to address Alexis de Tocqueville’s call for a new science of association as a indispensible guide to human action in the democratic age, classical liberal scholars have as yet missed the opportunity to formulate a paradigm of social and political thought capable of garnering epistemic authority that might help democratic societies become less vulnerable to the paradoxical situation through which excessive individualism generated by equality of conditions produces despotic government.
In which G.M. Curtis and I strive to caution constitutional equanimity in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election…
Every day since the election has brought with it a new affront to public civility. By and large, those in leadership have tried to rise to the occasion; signaling, yet again, Americans may be able to manage a peaceful transition of power….read more
July 21, 2015
Has the American republic passed its zenith? A building chorus of social commentary suggests that it has. Works such as Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (2012), Donald J. Devine’s America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution (2013); James L. Buckley’s Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People (2014); and Kevin D. Williamson’s The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure (2013) each seek to describe the illness besetting our contemporary political order and to consider whether we can halt the decline.
With By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, Charles Murray joins this chorus, which speaks to an increasingly palpable kairos, that opportune, and perhaps fleeting, moment in time when things must be said and done if a propitious outcome is to be achieved. Murray has been writing over the past decade—see his In Our Hands(2006) and Coming Apart (2012)—with a sense of urgency that has reached a crescendo in By the People, where he confesses in the tones of a jeremiad, “I am frightened by how close we are to losing America’s soul.”
Essay published in Society
Published in The Freeman Online, August 28, 2013
American public discourse is characterized today by predictions of decline and fall that offer little hope to the rising generations. From economic, social, and political critics, there is ample commentary on America’s self-destructive path.
Such prognoses have given birth to a mini-industry of Tocqueville studies, with partisans of all stripes hearkening back both to Tocqueville’s analysis of the strength of American democracy in our habit of association and to his awareness of a young nation’s underbelly, vulnerable to soft despotism.
“Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens,” writes Niall Ferguson in his current bestseller, The Great Degeneration. So far, so good.
While I share the contemporary fascination with Tocqueville’s powers of description and prognostication, I am cautious about claiming that “civil society” holds the solution to our present decline. The current institutions and leaders of civil society to which so many are looking for answers have themselves been shaped by their partnership with the welfare state. Few are in a position to articulate, much less reclaim, their independence from the State.
When administrators act, they constitute as well as manage. But what is being constituted—Leviathans or self-governing communities of relationships in compound republics?
The development of the Common Core, the model school curriculum standards that have been adopted by 45 states, offers us a glimpse into the dark underbelly of the democratic drift toward soft despotism. Proponents tout Common Core as “state-led” and say states “voluntarily adopt” the standards. Philanthropic and corporate America have gotten involved voluntarily. Parents and students—those most intimately affected by the initiative—won’t get to be a part of the voluntarism. But Common Core is so good, the argument goes, they’ll want it anyway.
Essay published online and in the July/August 2013 print edition of The Freeman.
Questioning the Common Core @ Philanthropy Daily
My essay, Exit, Voice, and Bourbon, for The Freeman (April 2013).