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Category: Political Thought

How Not to Defend the Humanities

In Renaissance Italy, the birthplace of the humanities, there were people who believed in literature. Not just people who read literature, wrote literature, studied literature, professed literature, packaged and sold literature, as today, but people who really believed in it. They believed that certain old books—containing poetry, history, moral philosophy, drama, oratory—could reshape the souls…

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Capitalism’s Character Types

Writing in the Atlantic, in an article titled “How Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration” (July/August 2017), Peter Beinart asks why Democrats moved from evenhandedness on the issue of immigration to a fervent belief in open borders. Why did they move from support for patriotism to contempt for the nation-state? Why do they refuse to…

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From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond

Whoever speaks of “crisis” today risks being dismissed as a bloviator, given the term’s banalization through endless loose talk. But there is a precise sense in which we do face a crisis today. If we characterize it precisely and identify its distinctive dynamics, we can better determine what is needed to resolve it. On that…

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The Detached Literature of Remote Wars

In the literature of our post-9/11 wars, the circuit between the home and the field of battle has been severed. Because of that fracture, our stories have struggled to convey the novelty of contemporary combat with the depth and significance that literature demands. Most often, recent war fiction ends up collapsing into exhausted and facile…

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The Conservation of Coercion

It was the anarchists who first told me about the Kapauku Papuans. Among the Kapauku, in West New Guinea, there was no state administration of justice; instead, both civil disputes and grave crimes were adjudicated by a caste of private citizens called tonowi. As tonowi travelled the highlands, collecting evidence, pronouncing judgement, and suggesting sentences, their reputations would spread. The wisest and most impartial tonowi were in high demand, and could command a correspondingly high price from a village for their assistance in settling a dispute. A tonowi who developed a reputation for corruption or partiality, however, would soon need to find a new line of work. Past judgements of great tonowi in difficult cases formed an evolving body of common law that helped inform new cases…

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Utilitarian Economics and the Corruption of Conservatism

The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions of the word “conservatism.” The first defines it as a “commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation”; the second defines it as “the holding of political views that favor free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.” The former definition strikes me as…

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The Great Exhaustion: Manned Space Flight and Philosophy

It is not difficult to imagine historians, several centuries from now, wondering how it could be that Americans, without really knowing how to do it, decided to go to the moon in eight short years. “What were they thinking?” these historians might exclaim! Their amazement could take two forms, however, depending on how Americans today,…

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Romance and Socialism in J. S. Mill

John Stuart Mill had the worst personal life of any libertarian philosopher, a competitive category for bad personal lives. Marriage in particular has a record of making libertarian philosophers behave discreditably—that is, in a way that brings discredit not just on their character but on their ideas. Bertrand Russell famously divorced the first of his four wives after a bicycle trip: “suddenly, as I was…

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What Is Conservatism?

The year 2016 marked a dramatic change of political course for the English-speaking world, with Britain voting for independence from Europe and the United States electing a president promising a revived American nationalism. Critics see both events as representing a dangerous turn toward “illiberalism” and deplore the apparent departure from “liberal principles” or “liberal democracy,”…

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Populist Demagogy and the Fanaticism of the Center

Why has the use of the term “populism” been imposed when we already had at our disposal the term “demagogy,” which seems to designate the same thing? Or are we to think that the new term refers to a new phenomenon, and that the new populism is something different from the old demagogy? To broach the issue, and as a provisional hypothesis, I offer the following…

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