Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Markets and the Family

The family and free markets are perhaps two important arenas of American life where conservatives have had a consistent and credible voice, and where liberal ideas have been largely found inadequate or harmful.

Yuval Levin has a fine column on the American family and the direction in which conservatism should be moving over the next decade with regard to both of these arenas at The Weekly Standard. Here are a couple of excerpts from the first half of the piece:

American conservatives have worked politically in recent decades to advance two sets of goods: the family and the market. They have advocated traditional values that sustain cultural vitality, and economic freedom that brings material prosperity. These two sets of ideals are mutually reinforcing to an extent. The market relies on a stable and orderly society made possible by sturdy families and strong social institutions; and freedom from unduly coercive authority is an essential prerequisite for making moral choices.

But markets and families are also in tension with one another. The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family life, and rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. Traditional values, on the other hand, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom. The libertarian and the traditionalist are not natural allies.

The left at its height viewed capitalism and traditional social institutions like the family as equally unjust and oppressive, and sought to use government power to replace or to undermine both.

This allowed conservatives to serve the cause of family and market by opposing big government. That doesn't mean the conservative coalition always held together amicably, but a common enemy can go a long way toward smoothing over differences.

Because of welfare reform and conservative pro-family policies, it is no longer fair to say that government is the greatest threat to American families. In the wake of Reagan's and Bush's tax cuts, the federal government is not the drain on Americans' pocketbooks or the deadweight on economic dynamism that it was in 1981. The federal government remains too big and overbearing. But opposition to government can no longer do as the primary means of advancing the interests of families and markets--which has been and should remain the twofold aim of American conservatives.

The genuinely statist left, which opposed both the family and the market, has not exactly disappeared, but it is beleaguered and badly bruised. American "progressives"--triangulated out of bounds by Clinton and then driven out of their minds by Bush--are in sorry shape, notwithstanding their good cheer at the recent election results. They are cynical "realists" in foreign policy, badly confused in domestic policy, with no clear purpose but power, no clear adversary but Bush, no clear ideals but clinging desperately to every tattered remnant of a failed vision even they no longer take seriously. When their electoral fortunes wax, as they surely have this year, it is not because voters think highly of them but because of the country's low opinion of Republicans.

Limited government is inherent to any conservative governing vision, but if those who run the government no longer explicitly seek to undermine capitalism and traditionalism--if government is no longer the greatest danger to both--then what is that greatest danger? And what is the best way to serve the causes of family and freedom?

Read at the link how Levin answers that question and what he prescribes for conservatives over the next decade.

Carrier Landing

So you say you'd like to be a Navy pilot? Well, landing jets on moving aircraft carriers is not an easy job as this video from the British Royal Navy attests.

An Atheist's Pilgrimage (Pt. I)

Gary Wolf has a very interesting essay at Wired in which he discusses his wish to join the ranks of the militant anti-theists who have come to be called the New Atheists and why, ultimately, though he is no theist, he declines. Wolf interviews three exemplars of the New Atheism - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett - and sympathetically elaborates on those interviews in the essay, explaining what he found agreeable and what he found to be disagreeable.

Any theist, particularly any Christian theist, who wishes to engage the culture apologetically would do well to read Wolf's account. It's a fascinating story, told with gentleness and apparent sincerity. It's a narrative that is probably common among intelligent, college-educated moderns. It's also a story which poses challenges to those who would have such people as Mr. Wolf come to believe that, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, He is there and He is not silent.

A couple of passages from his interviews struck me as noteworthy for what they revealed about the vacuousness of atheism. Consider, for example, this from the section in which Wolf meets with Richard Dawkins:

"I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism," Dawkins says, after we get settled in one of the high-ceilinged, ground-floor rooms. He asks me to keep an eye on his bike, which sits just behind him, on the other side of a window overlooking the street.

I don't know if Wolf intentionally juxtaposed these sentences, but if he did it was as brilliant as it was subtle.

I doubt Dawkins would have worried about his bike being stolen had he left it in an Amish neighborhood, or a Mormon town, or in the parking lot of any evangelical church which takes it's Christian faith seriously. But "the virtues of atheism" being what they are he worries because his bike is situated in the middle of a campus upon which those virtues are extolled and embraced. It is because atheism offers its votaries no grounds whatsoever for, say, the virtue of honesty that Dawkins is concerned about his bike being stolen. And yet this is what he wants the whole world to be like.

"How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?" Dawkins asks. "It's one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"

"Manifest" falsehoods? It's philosophically absurd to say that God's nonexistence is "manifest." Moreover, if society is justified in preventing parents from teaching their children theism why would they not be justified, in a society that believes that atheism is a manifest falsehood, in preventing parents from teaching their children that there is no God. No doubt Dawkins would be outraged should an effort be made to pass such legislation.

...the weak-minded pretense that religious viruses are trivial, much less benign. Bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. We should think harder about how to stop them.

Dawkins evidently wishes to make it illegal to take one's children to church. He's apparently unaware of studies such as the one discussed here which show that children raised in religious homes, on average, are far better off than those which are not.

In any case reading Dawkins reminds me of a passage from Noam Chomsky who once wrote that: "If we don't believe in the freedom of expression for people we despise then we don't believe in it at all." Dawkins is a classic totalitarian who wants to micromanage every aspect of peoples' lives including what they say in front of their children. If he lived seventy years ago he'd have doubtless been a Stalinist.

the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism. The sensible" - and here he pauses to indicate that sensible should be in quotes - "the 'sensible' religious people are really on the side of the fundamentalists, because they believe in supernaturalism.

Here Dawkins is correct. The "war" is between naturalism and supernaturalism. It's between materialism and theism. It's a philosophical struggle, and it's a shame that having enlisted in the battle he's still allowed to trade on his standing as a writer of science books to give him standing as a philosopher. His writings on the question of God's existence have absolutely nothing to do with science and everything to do with a metaphysical preference that he wishes to persuade everybody else to accept.

Richard Dawkins is an interesting, and tragic, person to watch. Having become obsessed with eradicating Christianity he has willingly embraced the role of village atheist and is making himself, a once accomplished writer of important books on biology, a bit of a laughingstock.

We'll have more on Wolf's journey in Part II tomorrow.