Seen through the haze – A Christmas Essay from Richard Miller

“Almost everyone asks philosophical questions- sooner or later.” H.D. Lewis.

It is one of the most familiar images of Christmas- the three wise men on camels against a setting sun- obviously riding westwards. But what is the reality behind the image, and what is its significance? After all,  the prevailing narrative says that Christmas is about family, friends, and overeating, and yet we find ourselves thinking about travelers far from home seeking for something, they know not quite what, in a strange country.

In the winter I have often  walked along the ridge of the chalk hills- curiously  called Downs- that dominate South Wiltshire. If you look south on a clear day you can just see the Needles- the giant blocks of chalk which mark the western point of The Isle of Wight. To the west is Shaftesbury, where Catherine of Aragon spent the night, and where Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter spent her final days. To the north, the rumble of guns from the military training grounds on Salisbury Plain can sometimes be heard drifting through the low cloud that often shrouds the landscape. Through the haze to the east you can sometimes see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral ( which C.S. Lewis called “a thought frozen in stone.”) pointing heavenward in a silent rebuke to earthly concerns . For those who built the cathedral there was clearly something beyond the grind of their daily lives.

Since the Enlightenment a sneering attitude to religion has taken root, and we have lost capacity to talk fluently about spiritual realities. But such concerns were central to our ancestors, and indeed to the whole western tradition, shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, which can ultimately be traced back to Abraham.

In that truly astonishing document- his “Epistle to the Romans” St. Paul asks about the nature of what happened to Abraham.  Was Abraham saved by his membership in the Jewish political community, or was he saved by his faith? Paul’s answer is unequivocal. Abraham was saved by his commitment to following God’s will. Like Abraham, Paul had earned nothing, but acquired everything through his trust in God.

Something like the same notion underlies the story of the Wise Men. But with this difference: for Paul the clouds opened in a single moment on the road to Damascus. For him there was no “haze”- the distant became the immediate. The Wise Men received no such single burst of illumination. They question even as they journey. In their case progress was slower, and reflected the fact that unlike Paul they were not saturated in a Jewish background. For them even the idea of a single truth would have been problematic. Whereas Paul was an insider for whom the implications of what Christ taught were clear, the Wise Men are depicted as being figures from the very edge of the civilised world, beyond the frontiers of the empire.

We know less about the Wise Men than we would like. Matthew – the most Jewish of the Gospels – and the only one to mention them-is laconic. They were probably Magi from the Parthian Empire, who lived in a half-Romanised environment in which differing faiths jostled for influence and power. The Magi are sometimes seen as Zoroastrians. But this seems to be a mistake. Certainly, there were some Magi who were  Zoroastrians, but they were in fact not followers of any one religion. Rather the Magi were members of a hereditary caste which performed the rites of any religion which happened to be in favour at the moment- and yes, some of them appear to have been star-gazers.

Much has been written about the celestial phenomenon that caught the Wise Men’s attention. We’ll never know the point at which fact stops and symbol begins. But two things are worth noting. The first is that the astronomer Kepler ( 1571-1630 )- a major figure in the history of science- thought he had identified an unusual conjunction which was consistent with Matthew’s account; and secondly that there may well be nothing inherently miraculous in the account- although of course, its timing is suggestive. But historical or legendary this tale raises questions. Is this all just tinsel? Is it just some distant memory of an expedition along the Asian trade routes that linked east and west? Or is there something we can learn here? In short, what do we have here?

We have a story, admittedly only half-authenticated, of a group caught up in the practice of religious rituals in which they did not believe, who saw something in the skies. Whatever it was, and whether they really saw it, or sensed it through the haze of their times, it alerted them to the possibility of a truth the existence of which they had not previously suspected, and who abandoned their comfortable way of life in search of it. That doesn’t sound like a bad example to follow!


Books for Christmas

The philosopher H.D. Lewis was not related to C.S. Lewis and his brother W.H. Lewis. The quote is the first line of his- strongly recommended- “Philosophy of Religion”. ( London, 1965 )

The vital work is Joseph Ratzinger ( aka Pope Benedict XVI )“ Jesus of Nazareth, The  Infancy Narratives”. ( 2012 ) p.89ff. Ratzinger relies on recent German scholarship. An older protestant book is J. Gresham Machen, “The Virgin Birth of Christ” ( 1930 ) My edition is London 1958. Machen despite being a theological conservative author stresses the non-miraculous character of the story about the star. See p. 224

For the Magi, in general, I have been browsing in R.C. Zaehner, “The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism  ( London, 1961 ) and in G. Ghirsman “Iran”. ( London, 1954 )  For the trade routes to and from the east along which the Magi must have moved, see Peter Frankopan, “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World .” ( London, 2015)  For Rome and the east see Mortimer Wheeler “Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers” ( London, ( London, 1954 )  There were Roman trading stations in The Red Sea, East Africa, India, and perhaps even Vietnam. For a fascinating discussion of the relations between east and west see C. Northcote Parkinson,  “East and West ) ( London, 1963 )

Right Minds – Niamh Uí Bhriain – Progressive Nationalist

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a progressive nationalist:

I’ve spent most of my adult life working to preserve things I consider fundamentally important, such as life, liberty, family and nation. Yet I’ve never really thought of myself as a conservative.

I blame Margaret Thatcher who famously said that there was no such thing as society, just individuals who needed to put themselves first before looking after others.

She epitomised for me, and for many Irish people, what we thought it meant to be a conservative –  an excessive emphasis on the individual; extolling the free market without a meaningful requirement for social contract; and an opposition to change which sometimes seemed more to do with conserving hierarchies than preserving the common good.

I think I realised that this was somewhat of a mischaracterisation, and I certainly didn’t like the lefties any better. Socialism might have been an experiment, but it wasn’t a noble one. It is extraordinary that we still have people, some sitting in Dáil Eíreann, who happily describe themselves as Marxist/Leninists when millions were killed in the Gulags, under Chairman Mao, and in Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.

Marx’s central tenet of permanent revolution faded pretty rapidly when a changing and more egalitarian world gave ordinary people opportunities which seemed preferable to an eternal class struggle – like owning property and businesses and making a decent living. As John Waters observed in his book Give Us Back the Bad Roads this meant that the Left switched to identifying and creating coalitions with societal groups they considered oppressed – therefore pitching themselves as the champions of all the tribes.

This was a smart move because group loyalty and identity is hugely important to people, more important sometimes than conservatives realise.  It’s also one reason why libertarianism isn’t enough as a political philosophy for me, because there seems to me to only be a requirement to avoid harm, without an emphasis on a responsibility to care for others.

I understand that the state has shown itself to be remarkably bad at caring for its citizens, the chaos in the HSE being a case in point, where, despite the fact that employers and employees pay a cost amounting to almost 20% of wages in PRSI, everyone knows that if you are seriously sick you might actually die before you get seen by in the public service. I agree with libertarian Ludwig von Mises when he said that “there is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men.”

But there needs to be a social contract of some sort, and I believe this is best expressed in the organisation of a people in its most obvious and enduring form, the nation.

Pearse believed that “there is really a spiritual tradition which is the soul of Ireland, the thing which makes Ireland a living nation, and that there is such a spiritual tradition corresponding to every true nationality”.  By the soul of the nation he meant the language, the traditions, the entire culture and faith and history, but, also perhaps, the long endurance of a sense of identity, the tug of recognition of being part of an ancient lineage, the pull we feel looking out from Ben Bulben, or listening to a sean nós song. It is the sense that this our own, that we are, as Pearse said: “Not free merely but Gaelic and well, not Gaelic merely but free as well.”

Nationalism should bind us together, not just in pride but in a desire to do better for everyone because a nation will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable. I love, not just my country, but my nation and her people, which makes me firstly a patriot, and that I remain, however foolish or cruel the people may show themselves to be.

I will say, in fairness to Thatcher, she actually included families in her ideal of how a government should organise to benefit individuals, and I understand that many people identify as conservatives because we should rightly be resistant to the sort of change which is actually destroying people’s lives for the sake of social experiment.

But it seems to me that at a time when modern democracies have demolished legal recognition of antecedent and fundamental rights in relation to families and now even the right to life, and are busy crushing freedom of speech and legislating to outlaw common sense, perhaps conservatism is the wrong description of what needs to be married with nationalism to best repair the damage. Too much that should have been conserved has already been destroyed.

I would say a real progressive is not someone who tries to destroy society as an experiment. A real progressive seeks to improve society by reform and repair, and I think we may have taken apart enough of the structures which held society together to say that we need to mend what has been broken. Maybe a progressive nationalism, a real progressive nationalism, is what this country now needs.

Right Minds – John McGuirk – Social Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

The good, old-fashioned, judgemental, hang ‘em and flog ‘em, Social Conservative.

I’m that kind of conservative right winger all the other right wingers like to define themselves against. “Oh, I’m not one of those people”, they say. “I’m for freedom, and choice, and you living your very best life, but with small Government. I wouldn’t be religious now myself at all.”

As it happens, I’m not very religious myself either, but that image comes with the brand: Social Conservative. The very words conjure up images of little old ladies brandishing photographs of the blessed virgin at heathen marchers dressed in rainbow outfits, or of Nancy Reagan quaintly imploring grungy American teenagers to just say no to drugs, or of those very nice and sincere young Christian missionaries who are doing their absolute best to make virginity cool again in the west.

We’re the square ones. We’re behind the times. We have absolutely no connection to how people live their lives today, and when we read the Handmaid’s Tale, we don’t see a dystopia, we see blueprints.

That’s the image. The reality is more boring.

I want to live in a stable, secure, safe, and happy society, one where people can fulfil their potential and feel satisfied and content. We should seek a society that minimises insecurities, rather than magnifying them, one where people can feel fulfilled rather than, as is too often the case, constantly on edge. Our government should be conducive to these things and should prioritise them over ideological goals like freedom or equality. I don’t wish to live in a free society, or an equal society, if the option of a contented society is on the table.

Government should also build on what works. It should be local – very few government departments are run as effectively or efficiently as the local GAA club, which raises and spends money close to the citizen, with the involvement of the citizen, to the benefit of the citizen. It should be a moral leader – societies need standards of compassion and decency and that ought to be signalled and lived out by our chosen leaders. And, finally, Government should preserve and defend those institutions which serve society well.

The pathway to a successful life, to health, to happiness, and indeed to greater wealth, is very simple: Get married, stay married, get a job, buy a house, have children, get a pension, retire, and play golf. The reason this formulation has remained in vogue since antiquity (with the latter-day additions of pensions and golf) is very simply that it works.

It works for several obvious reasons – it gives you a stake in something more than yourself. You are no longer invested simply in your own success, but in somebody else’s. It makes you a better and more engaged citizen – you start caring about things like schools and public safety. It gives you a sense of pride, because with your property you have something to improve. It brings out the selflessness in us, because even the vainest parent will usually make sacrifices for their children.

All in all, people in stable families are better off, happier, and richer than the rest of us, and that’s because stable families work to make their members all those things. The very principle of left-wing thought – that working together we can all improve ourselves – has always been proven correct in the family, and yet the traditional family has never been high on the left’s list of beloved institutions.

If we want engaged, striving, good, law abiding citizens, if we want people to live a little bit longer than their parents, if we want people to feel secure and contented, there is no better way than to embrace and enact a political ideology that puts the family at the centre and works out from there. The family has been working towards and accomplishing those goals since before most modern political thought structures emerged. Indeed, many attacks on the family come explicitly from those who regard it as altogether too successful, and as an impediment to equality, which says quite enough about its success.

What, then, is pro-family policy? Well first, and this is important – it’s not prescriptive. Nobody should be forced or compelled into a social structure that’s not for them. Second, it’s essential to recognise that while the general rule is success, many families fail (and we’ll explore some of the trends around that in a moment) or fall apart, and that a general pro-family disposition does not imply judgement about those who fall outside that structure.

Being pro-family, however, means enacting, as a policy priority, ideas which favour and strengthen the family, rather than ideas which weaken and oppose it. Let me cite a specific example around housing policy: Currently, in many western nations, housing policy favours a single parent with a child ahead of a couple with a child on the basis that the single parent is in the more urgent need. This policy is derived, as so many bad policies are, from a noble principle – that we must help the weakest first.

However, ask those on the frontlines of housing policy what the effect of the policy is, and you’ll hear repeated stories of couples living apart or even separating in order to be eligible for housing. A housing policy that incentivised parents to stay together would have its failings, but it would certainly be preferable to one that incentivises parents to live apart. Each policy choice will result in individual cases with a negative outcome, but the policy which incentivises two parent families will objectively favour better long-term outcomes for the general population than a policy which incentivises one parent families.

Social conservatism should also have at its heart a critique of the culture, and of progressivism, for the simple reason that much that is called progress is not progress at all. On these pages, much has been written about “freedom”, as if freedom is at the heart of the conservative mission when it is not, never has been, and must never be. We are not for freedom – we are for order, and we are for stability.

Freedom itself does not lead to happiness – it never has, and it is never likely to. The inability of humanity to cope with absolute freedom has been documented more times, and in more tragic ways, than I could ever express in a thousand words or so, though rarely more poignantly than in those great conservative movies, The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day.

Being a social conservative is often associated with the word ‘judgemental,’ as if we go around pronouncing on other people’s lives and passing sentences upon them. We do not.  But we do, and must, be the ones pointing out that freedom to live in a particular way does not mean that living in that way is desirable, good for you, or likely to make the average person happy.

One of the most fascinating articles of recent times (to me, at least, you may differ) was about the so-called sex recession, written by Kate Julian in The Atlantic.  Without wishing to quote it extensively (I encourage you to read it yourself) it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on balance, the sexual part of the sexual revolution has largely led to decreased happiness, decreased trust between the sexes, and ironically, worse sex. I mention this element of our culture specifically because it is the element that has the largest impact on the family, which is of course based on that great opposite of the sexual revolution, monogamy.

Sexual (or as they like to call it, reproductive) freedom is also at the heart of contemporary progressivism, with its modern emphasis on issues like abortion, LGBT rights, and transgenderism to the exclusion of almost everything else. Sure, the modern progressive is interested in critiquing poverty, loudly and proudly, but they’ll abandon that issue and flee to the barricades the very moment the sexual freedom of middle-class-Malcolm is perceived to be threatened, or even criticised. And yet…..

The freedom to use each other as disposable products to gratify our own needs, whether it be through hook-ups, pornography, sexting, or whatever you’re having yourself cannot and should not be taken away – but can we at least, as conservatives, be unafraid to be honest about it? These progressives are digging trenches to defend an utterly empty cultural phenomenon, one that in general leaves those partaking in it feeling a little bit lost and a little bit used.

There is, objectively, a more fulfilling way to live. It is, ironically, the way so many of Ireland’s leading progressive voices themselves choose to live. Few of them, you’ll find, are unmarried, without their own homes. Many of them invest in private education for their children. Most of them benefit from the ordered, stable lives that they attack social conservatives for promoting.

Being a social conservative is about recognising fundamental truths about the human condition, recognising why our social structures have evolved the way they have, and defending those social structures without wishing to make them compulsory. It’s also about, in the words of Sideshow Bob, cutting your taxes and brutalising criminals, but you can look forward to me writing about those another time.

Right Minds – Gary Kavanagh – Burkean Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a Burkean Conservative:

What I believe is, at its core, simple – and can be dealt with mostly by just giving it a name. I believe in the principles of Burkean Conservatism, which some would call Traditionalist Conservatism. More accurately I believe that liberty, in order to be real and sustainable, must be ordered inside a hierarchical society. That that order is best maintained by a combination of state and social forces, and that these forces not only are coercive, but that they must be coercive, or at least have the active potential to be so, in order to build a sustainable system.

It needs to be so because man has a nature, and that nature is of an amoral animal. Which is not to say that man is worse than other animals, he isn’t, but rather that he is equal to them in his capacity for great benevolence and great malevolence. I believe man is imperfect, and imperfectible. Or, as Marina and the Diamonds sang, ‘Murder lives forever, and so does war’

My primary concern politically is the concept of systemic fragility and resilience, which is an overly complicated way of saying that I care about the ability of a political system to actually last without inevitably either a) becoming a tyranny, or b) devolving into anarchy, and I’m not talking here about the fun kind of anarchy. I’m talking less Burning Man and more Sengoku Jidai here.

I think that systems like Marxism, anarchism, and (to an extent largely based on how far they want to go with it before finally just becoming anarcho capitalists) libertarianism are ‘perfect’ theories that cannot work in an imperfect world. That’s not to say I like them, or that I think they are in any sense a way to improve things, but rather that they are designed from a set of assumptions about mankind that do not match with the actual reality of man.

They resemble nothing so much as the sort of priceless china that everyone’s Grandmother seemed to somehow acquire; pretty to look at, because it was designed to be pretty to look at, and, because it was designed to only exist in a cupboard, prone to shattering at the slightest pressure. The issue here, of course, is that when political ideologies break, when societies break, they don’t just leave a little glass on the floor, they leave bodies. Sometimes tens of millions of them.

As to why I believe these things, I have to say I’m honestly not sure. I mean the easy answer is to say that I believe them because they seem to be the correct things to believe because they are true, and I do believe that to be the case, or that I came to them after a long study of different types of philosophy, and that is also arguably true, but I am generally a proponent of the idea that our political ideologies and personal philosophies are based more on our temperaments, personalities, and the cultures in which we formed ourselves, or were formed, than they are on things like ‘arguments’ or ‘truth.’

I don’t think there was any great moment in my life, some road to Damascus moment, which led me to my current beliefs. Looking back at what I can recall of my younger self, which is admittedly through a fairly strong haze caused by a combination of my terrible memory and rampant usage of powerful psychedelic drugs in my youth, I don’t think I ever really changed what I believed in, on a fundamental level, but rather that I learned more and gave it a more concrete form, sharpened the edges of it, and learnt how to discuss it, and defend it, with others more fluidly.

Most of my peers came to traditionalist conservatism through their religious faith, either a strong current faith or a previous faith which has waned but which they still respect, but I’ve never been one for religious faith, which is probably why I never became an atheist. My approach to religion is strictly one of apatheism. I do not care if there is a God or there is not a God.

Which is not to say I’m uninterested in religion, I am immensely interested in religion, its forms, its traditions, its various ideas of what a life worth living actually is, and of course its sociological impacts, but rather that I think the least interesting conceivable question about any particular religion is if the god[s] they worship exist.

I came instead to traditionalist conservatism through absurdism. A subject which doesn’t really fit with the rest of this essay and so I won’t be going into, but which is worth mentioning.

In Burke, particularly, I liked his acceptance of his own limits, particularly with regard to human knowledge. We seem to think now that existence, from the smallest to the largest, is a clockwork system which any person could, with enough training, take apart and put back together again without issue.

He understood that a perfect idea, imposed on an imperfect world, would lead only to ruin. He understood that the knowledge of any one person is a limited and pale thing, a single flickering candle in an infinite void. He distrusted abstractions, as he distrusted revolution as a means to an end.

I think at the end of everything, I am a Burkean Conservative because I think it is a political ideology that recognises the limitations of man, as an individual and as a species, but also recognises the great things both the individual and the group can achieve. It recognises the importance of institutions, the strength they can give to the individual and to the group, whilst also being painfully aware of how fragile these things actually are, and how little it would take for things we think are made of rock to turn to sand and collapse around us. And likely on top of us.

Beyond that, it seems to simply work as a means for organising a society over the long-term. Which means we can focus all of our attention on finding some other fool way to kill ourselves.

Right Minds – Michael O’Dwyer Connolly – Nationalist Conservative

Why I am a Nationalist Conservative:

I don’t actually like political labels. They’re restrictive, often poorly understood and regularly misinterpreted. All the same, if I had to label myself in simple terms, it would probably be that. In convoluted terms it would probably be ‘esoteric nationalist futurism with a strongly conservative ethos,’ but no one knows what that means, and very few probably want to know.

Politics, in my view, is simply the system we create for organising our societies. Obviously, we want productive, healthy, functional societies. Those that aren’t have a tendency to collapse. I’m a practical man, so to properly understand my political views, we have to engage with the very practical concept of civilisation as a linear progression.

We humans are creatures of flesh and blood, evolved from stardust and energy on a rock travelling the endless expanse of space. This biological life, and by extension the civilisation that it develops to give itself an order and a purpose, is a one-way street. You either reach the stars and spread among them, or your species eventually dies on its rock, either destroying itself or being destroyed via cosmic accident.

A civilisation advances through its eras of complexity. In our case; tribal, feudal, industrial, modern and so forth. There is no room for mistake, for regression or for subjectivity. You advance quickly or you exhaust your planet’s resources and die having lost the only race that ever mattered.

Where the hell does nationalism and conservatism come into all this?

It’s a surprisingly simple connection actually. Nationalism and conservatism are political ideologies, they are some of many ways in which we can organise our civilisation. If our civilisational goal is the advancement of ourselves and by extension humanity – as it should be – then those ideologies are the best way of doing it.

Nationalism is essential because without it, nations will simply degrade and fall apart over time. Nationalism is pride in one’s people, history, culture and the struggle for a better future for your country. It grounds people, gives them purpose, motivation. We see this very clearly now in Europe, whole countries lose sight of why they exist. They ask whether they even deserve to exist. The door is flung open for incredibly damaging and nonsensical philosophies to take advantage of a demoralised people.

The belief in your nation and your people with whom you share centuries, if not millennia, of history and culture – is absolutely integral to the long-term functionality of any society, any civilisation. Perhaps most importantly of all, it allows actions to be taken purely for the good of the nation as a whole. There are plenty of other arguments for nationalism, even spiritual ones, but that is simply my practical take on its necessity.

As for conservatism, it provides the healthy moral and social footing that is not necessarily inbuilt into nationalism, though they often come together. Nationalism can come in many forms, you can even get left-wing nationalism as strange as that may sound, which is why it is important to specify the conservative ethos of my beliefs.

I yearn for the future, as any biological organism should. That’s the principle this entire article is based around. However it is no secret that the future contains problems, dangers, and difficult questions. With the advancement of technology, things like abortion became possible. That is the role of the conservative side of this futuristic coin, to identify the new possibilities that emerge, and decide the morally sound course of action that will not harm society.

This will be a very important role going forward. Technologies like gene-editing, cybernetic augmentation and plenty of others are only around the corner. We’ll almost undoubtedly live to see them. If one is only concerned with technological advancement or national advancement, it is easy to overlook the societal questions that arise from them. Should we edit genes merely to destroy disease, or should we make humans faster, stronger and more intelligent than ever before?

You might think this a harsh outlook, a take on ideology and personal philosophy that is too practical. It’s probably the oddest of the Burke’s Right Minds series so far – and we’ve had libertarian anarchists. Yet I think it the most morally defensible ideology.

Caring about your nation, your people and your society, while at the same time working towards the advancement of all humanity is the only ideology that promises to exalt people, to let them reach the fullest of their potential.

Libertarian society will fail because it cares only for the individual. Religious society will fail because they care only for heaven. Marxist society will fail because… well, for a plethora of reasons. Conservatism alone will stagnate. Nationalism alone is simply not enough.

Put them together and look towards the future. Maybe then we’ll have something to work with.

Michael O’Dwyer Connolly is Director & Editor at The Burkean. You can follow him on Twitter @BurkeanMichael

Right Minds – John Waters – Progressive

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

The sort of Progressive I am:

It seems that if you do not agree to be ‘left,’ you will be designated ‘right,’ without choice or requirement for consent. I have never liked any of these labels, and reject them all. Even the word ‘conservative’ has become contaminated by malodorous propaganda, even though, as Roger Scruton has observed, everyone is conservative in the everyday things: if you are looking for a midwife at four in the morning, a belief in the value of crystals asserted on a website or Golden Pages entry is unlikely to clinch it.

I don’t call myself ‘conservative,’ still less ‘right-wing’ or ‘right’. I am a progressive, which I will explain in a little while.

When I was a young man, I thought of myself as a lefty, but it was the soft leftism that comes from reading too many Billy Bragg interviews in the NME. I had also read my Orwell back to front, and was in no sense at a loss as to the facts. But being a lefty was de rigueur for a rock journalist seeking street cred, so I paid my dues and saluted in all the right places.

Three things changed me:

1. Alcoholism, which woke (hah!) me to the precise dynamic of my human mechanism, reminding me that I was a creature making his way through a given world, driven by a desire for something far greater than anything in a bottle or even a party dress.

2. Prague 1990. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I visited Prague to cover the first post-Communist elections in what was then Czechoslovakia. A man called Ivan became my guide and, going around, we talked a great deal about politics and life. Then in my early 30s, I was still in conventional Paddy Radical mode. Ivan was having none of it. Remorselessly, he outlined what leftism had done to his people and his country, how socialists had terrorised and slaughtered, demonised and imprisoned, how they had stultified the life of Czechoslovakia and imposed upon it what the great dissident and soon-to-be president Vaclav Havel had called ‘a Biafra of the spirit.’

On the day of my departure, he came with me to the airport, and on his knees in the taxi nursed a cardboard box, refusing to tell me what it contained. At the departure gates, he solemnly shook hands, handed me the box and waited while I opened it. Inside were a dozen busts of the most infamous socialist top brass – Stalin, Lenin and some of the local Czech half-breed – made of candle wax. Ivan had been given the job of cleaning up an impromptu alter constructed at the spot where the Velvet Revolution had kicked off, and had found this rather quintessentially Czech way of disposing of the wax that flowed onto the sidewalk from the thousands of candles placed there by passers-by. Now, as we said goodbye, he looked me in the eye. ‘You must take to Ireland,’ he said, ‘the heads of the socialist murderers.’

The penny finally dropped. These guys were not cuddly-cool icons, but tyrants whose hands were stained with the blood of millions. It was time to stop posturing and join the human race.

3. Becoming a father in strained circumstance in 1996 and discovering that, whereas I was shocked to discover that a single father had virtually no legal rights to a relationship with his child, none of the social-justice warrior types with whom I’d been consorting over the previous decade or so could see anything wrong or strange about this.  Far from joining my posse, they tried to kick my head in every time I mentioned the matter.

These three events caused me to rethink everything – or, rather, to start thinking, in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘without a bannister.’ Giving up drink helped in a different way too: I was no longer consorting with journalists in Dublin’s taverns of groupthink, and so began to enjoy watching my courage grow.

Today, I regard myself as a progressive in the C.S. Lewis sense.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”

It adds up. What we call left-liberalism is really nothing like either of its alleged constituent elements, and is certainly not ‘progressive’. In fact, left-liberalism as we have come to know it in recent times is an ideology grounded in the falsification of equations of justice. It advocates stealing from Paul to pay Paulette, or, to put it Thomistically, to fail to give to each what is due. Left-liberal ‘justice’ is distributed on ideological lines, favouring listed victims over categories – under different headings – of deplorables: unborn babies, fathers, men, Christians, white men, white fathers, straight men, white straight Christian men, straight fathers, white straight fathers, white straight Christian fathers and their unborn babies of any colour, religion or inclination.

If ever there was a road to turn back from, this is it.

John Waters is a writer, the author of ten books, the latest of which, Give Us Back the Bad Roads, has just been published by Currach Press. If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to listen in to the podcast on The Right Side tomorrow that analyses these ideas in more detail. 

Right Minds – David Thunder – Confederal Republican

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a Confederal Republican:

“Live free or die,” asserts the official motto of the American State of New Hampshire. Such a motto may sound fanatical to our ears, but it reflects the perennial appeal of the value of freedom, which has spoken powerfully to countless generations of citizens since ancient times. Many people, especially in the West, see freedom as an essential element of a life worth living. For example, people feel they should be free to shape their own future, and not be dictated to by others about fundamental life choices. Many view their life as a personal project they are – or should be – free to direct as they will.

The meaning and value of freedom has been debated for over two millennia. The freeman, on the ancient Aristotelian-Platonic view, not only had rational dominion over his own inner life – passions, thoughts, choices – but the capacity to exercise rational dominion over the collective life of the community, through collaborative decision-making and public service. Furthermore, for the ancients freedom was vacuous if disconnected from objectively valuable ends, since these ends were what conferred meaning and worth on a human life. Only a life of virtue, embodying a sincere quest for truth and goodness, was considered truly liberating.

Many modern thinkers have abandoned the ancient notion that freedom is tied to human worth and nobility, and settled for a more formal understanding of freedom as the ability to do what one wishes, within certain legal and moral constraints. Thus, the connection between freedom and objective human flourishing, if not completely absent, has certainly receded from view.

Besides the disconnect between freedom and flourishing, another significant shift away from ancient views is the notion that individual freedom is consistent with the surrender of major decisions affecting the structure of social life to an elite class of rulers and economic ‘gurus.’ From an ancient Greek perspective, this does not make sense, for it assumes that a person can be free while operating within a socio-economic framework designed and imposed unilaterally by other agents.

To sum up, many modern theorists presume to isolate the value of freedom from the achievement of a flourishing life, as well as the right to participate actively in the construction of social order. Public discussions of freedom, as well as modern political institutions, seem to follow suit.

As far as I am concerned, these are the two pressure-points where modern political theory and practice go badly wrong. Discourse about freedom sinks into unintelligibility when freedom becomes unmoored from human flourishing. Furthermore, when our capacity to actively shape our collective life is usurped by highly centralized ‘representative’ bodies, under the pretext that they protect private freedom, liberty is reduced to the ability to exercise a profession and hobby of one’s choice, express one’s opinions, practice one’s religion, choose one’s marriage partner and associates, and engage in economic exchange without undue interference.

Of course, this is a lot more than is granted in totalitarian societies. However, it is perfectly compatible with political and economic servitude, that is, a state in which citizens surrender collective self-government and a large chunk of their income to a distant representative body, with extremely crude and limited mechanisms for holding such a body answerable for its actions.

And so, to distinguish myself from modern liberals, who think people should do what they feel like within the law, and are happy to delegate community governance to a centralized political and economic elite, I happily assume the label, ‘confederal republican.’ I am a republican – of a classical Aristotelian hew – insofar as I believe that freedom finds its perfection in the achievement of a rational and virtuous human life, which in turn requires inward self-dominion but also active and meaningful participation in the shaping of community life.

My peculiar brand of republicanism is partly inspired by 17th century German political philosopher and jurist Johannes Althusius, who conceived of politics as the “art of associating…for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life.” In my view Althusius took this principle in an excessively hierarchical direction, and was insufficiently attentive to the dangers of abuse and the need to build robust checks and balances into the system. Nevertheless, his emphasis on consensual associations as the building blocks of political order is salutary from the perspective of republican freedom, because it has the potential to take us far beyond the hierarchical and unitary model of the ancient polis.

A contemporary adaptation of Althusian principles entails that citizens can opt in and out of a wide range of associations, each with its own functionally and/or territorially limited authority, and these associations can delegate limited grants of authority to super-associations entrusted with coordinating the common affairs of many different associations. This fits with the etymology of confederal,con (together) and foedus (league, treaty), which suggests a complex and multilateral partnership rather than a consolidated union with power concentrated in a ruling center.

Confederal republicanism is not just a set of principles of institutional design, but a set of assumptions about governance and political order that need to be reflected in the mindsets of citizens and rulers alike. It has the potential to break the monopoly of states, political parties, and multinational corporations over public finance, welfare, public services, culture, taxation, and economic regulation, and create unprecedented opportunities for grassroots associations to play a more active and meaningful role in solving social and economic problems from the ground up.

Admittedly, this multilateral and de-centered paradigm of political order requires a high level of voluntary cooperation and a widely entrenched commitment to constitutionalism. Consequently, it is not a panacea for the problems of domestic and global governance in a world many parts of which lack a developed culture of freedom and constitutionalism. Nevertheless, under the right social conditions, it offers a very promising framework for the practice of republican freedom, with significant advantages if compared with the statist framework we currently live under. Indeed, even where its enabling conditions are lacking, confederal republicanism may still serve as a valuable regulative ideal for avant-garde political, legal, and cultural reforms.

Professor David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder

Right Minds – Gerard Casey – Anarchist Libertarian

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I believe what I do about Libertarianism

I have to confess that I haven’t always been a libertarian; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea ultima culpa! I came to libertarianism relatively late in my life when I finally realised that it was the only political position that took the freedom of the individual human being seriously. (The clue is in its name!)

Libertarianism is based on the belief that individuals have an inalienable right to live their own lives as they see fit so long as they observe one limiting condition. This limiting condition can be expressed in the zero-aggression principle, the acceptance of which makes you a libertarian, the rejection of which puts you outside the libertarian fold.

Zero-aggression principle (ZAP): No one may initiate or threaten to initiate the use of coercive physical violence [aggression] against the person or property of another.

But one might reasonably object that freedom isn’t the only human good. Indeed, freedom is not the only human good nor indeed is it even the most important substantive good; it is, however, the foundation and guardian of all other social and political goods.

But don’t we need a state to maintain law and order and justice and to provide basic social services? It is true that in the contemporary world, the state is considered necessary for the provision of many things but most of all for the provision of peace and security by means of its powers of law-making, law-adjudication and law-enforcement. It is widely believed that without the state there would be widespread disorder, violence, and chaos in society.

When it comes to the question of the state and its role, libertarians come in two basic types. Those who accept a minimal night-watchman state, its functions limited exclusively to justice and law enforcement, are minarchists; those, like me, who believe that all that human beings need for their social and political flourishing—including law, justice and security—can be provided by the free interaction of individuals and groups, are anarchists.

Apart from its provision of justice and security, the contemporary state does many other things. It provides extensive financial support to a large segment of the population (at a considerable cost to yet another segment of the population); it organises and pays for the education (or, at least, the schooling and certification) of the masses from elementary school to university; in many countries, it organizes and pays for the health services that most people have access to either at no cost or minimal cost to users (but at a staggering cost to the taxpayer); it provides roads, sewage and refuse services; it regulates business, industry, agriculture, and so on ad nauseam.

Some people may be prepared to accept that education and health and roads and sewage and so on could be provided for by the free interactions of individuals and groups but what, they ask, will happen to the poor and the incapable? Wouldn’t they suffer in a libertarian world? Doesn’t the modern state provide a minimal safety net for such people?

Well, yes – but badly and at an enormous financial and social cost. Here, as everywhere else, the state is part of the problem, not part of the solution. When libertarian anarchists propose dismantling the state, most people think that what we will have is exactly what we had before, without the protection of welfare. But this is not what libertarian anarchists have in mind at all.

What we will have when the state is deconstructed is a society in which all are encouraged to work for themselves, their families, their friends and their communities, to produce and to dispose of their production without having a huge portion of it confiscated by the idle ruling class and diverted towards welfare, whether of the individual or corporate variety. Individual welfare is the latter-day equivalent of bread and circuses and corporate welfare is the latter-day equivalent of largesse distributed to courtiers and wealthy merchants.

In institutionalising (relative) poverty, the state creates and maintains a client underclass which it can count on to vote for it when needed. The members of this underclass are infantilised and systematically deprived of the opportunity to escape from their spiritually crippling condition. The tragedy is that they all too readily believe that those who infantilise them are their benefactors.

One thing that will, however, disappear in the libertarian world is the institutionalised poverty of the welfare state and its segregated underclass together with an increased capacity for philanthropy by the many who can dispose of the wealth they create in ways that serve the needs of those with less than they need.

Will the libertarian anarchist world be a paradise? No. No matter how you structure society, there will always be some who are less able, less energetic, less competent than others. The issue is not one of creating the perfect society but creating the conditions for a better society.

So, what to do? First, get the state out of all involvement with the provision of services, such as mail delivery and the like. There is no reason why the state should be involved in such enterprises. Second, get the state out of the provision of health, education and welfare (all welfare, corporate welfare as well as individual welfare).

In all these areas, the state operates incompetently and expensively, and that’s not even to consider that its involvement in education is a major plank in sustaining its own supportive ideology. Third, get the state out of economics, economic planning and regulation. Apart from having no authority here, it also has no competence.

When all this has been done, the only area remaining is that of law, order, and defence. And at this point, you can chose to be either a minarchist or an anarchist, unless, of course, you reject the ZAP. In which case, you had better be prepared to justify your willingness to use physical violence against the person or property of another. Think about it.

Right Minds – David Quinn – The Social Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

A few years ago I was addressing an audience along with Michael McDowell. I described myself as a ‘conservative.’ He winced a bit and wondered why I would use a term like that. Almost no-one, not even people who are genuine, bona fide conservatives, are willing to describe themselves as such.

It is because of the baggage that is attached to the label. Conservatives are attached to worn-out customs and traditions. Worse, they have defended oppressive and authoritarian systems of Government. Time and again, history has shown them to be in the wrong.

Why, therefore, would anyone call themselves a ‘conservative’? Isn’t it much better to be a reformer, a liberal, or better yet, a radical? If you do that, you are pretty much guaranteed praise, or at least a quiet life. You can see why even conservatives are reluctant to self-identity as such, even to themselves.

I call myself a conservative because that’s what I am, both by temperament and philosophy. A conservative is suspicious by default of demands for sweeping social change. We want the need for change to be demonstrated. Like the defence team in a trial, we want a certain burden of proof to be met and we believe the burden of proof rests with those who have declared the status quo to be guilty of some deficiency.

When we look at a tradition, which is to say, a practice that has evolved over time in the white heat of human experience, we tend to think it is there for a reason and you should think long and hard before changing it, never mind overthrowing it completely.

Marriage is an excellent example of a universal social custom. Yes, it does vary from place to place and time to time. In some cultures, there is polygamy, for instance, and in others divorce is harder or easier to obtain.

But at its heart, as a social institution, it has always been the sexual union of male and female directed ultimately towards the generation and rearing of children, even if a given couple is infertile. Only a very unusual society pretends the sexual union of man and women is of no special consequence and would therefore drastically alter the definition of marriage the way we have.

Other traditions can and should be overthrown, for instance the radical separation of the sexes into the world of work and the domestic world, even though the separation was often not half-so-radical as we are now led to believe.

Aside from a willingness to give tradition and social custom the benefit of the doubt, conservatives are very suspicious of all utopian schemes. That is because we have a realistic view of human nature. Humans are imperfect and imperfectible. Indeed, that is often why we have certain traditions; so as it rein in some of our worst impulses.

This is also why conservatives tend to be a bit suspicious of the State. The State can become too powerful, destroying social customs and mediating institutions in the name of either freedom or equality thereby leaving the individual alone against the State because the family has been weakened, religion has been weakened, the community we call the nation has been weakened.

To put it another way, we don’t like an overly powerful State because we like the various communities that help to give our lives shape, and we tend to like time-honoured ways of doing things because they are often very civilising and very realistic.

If I had to boil my politics down to a few precepts, I suppose they would be as follows: don’t overthrow a tradition without very careful thought; reject all utopian schemes; look after marriage; and one I haven’t mention here, look after the money. Highly indebted societies invariably run into trouble.

Do we conservatives have a proper political home in Ireland currently? No. Instead we have political parties that have never seen a tradition they don’t want to overthrow, that believe open-ended personal freedom will lead to utopia, that confuse family breakdown with ‘family diversity,’ and which love to spend money they don’t have.

The job of the conservative might be very unglamorous, but it is also very necessary. The loss of an effective conservative voice in Ireland means we are now a car that is all accelerator and no brakes. We don’t see the point of brakes when all that lies ahead of us seems to be ‘progress,’ no matter how many dangerous turns and cliffsides there are waiting for us.

Right Minds – James Bradshaw

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run byThe Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Political self-descriptions are hard, and the road which one must travel before arriving at a comfortable destination is long and winding. At least it should be, if you think about things seriously.

For my own part, the journey began during my youthful infatuation with republican socialism. That flame burned brightly before fading away, leaving nothing but several bookshelves furnished with titles including the acronym IRA.

It is hard to pinpoint a specific time when I became disillusioned with “the cause.”

The process was gradual: as I devoured more history books, it became harder to accept that in the future socialism would create wealth or happiness, given how in the past it had resulted in nothing but poverty and despair.

My nationalism also withered over time, as my interests broadened beyond the previously absorbing question of whether Ireland should be one jurisdiction or two.

Thus, I entered my voting years shorn of leftist leanings, but unsure of where my sympathies lay.

I was not a socialist, of that I was sure. Was I, therefore, a conservative? The general appeal of the term was clear enough, especially for one who no longer wanted to fundamentally transform society.

But the late 2000s was not a time for embracing the past or defending institutions which had so obviously failed us.

More importantly, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil could articulate a vision of what role the state should play, or how society should be organised. I was in search of a coherent political philosophy, and neither of these parties were offering one.

It was in this environment that I discovered libertarianism.

Thankfully, the first libertarian philosopher whose arguments I examined in detail would also prove to be the most enduring influence to this day: Professor Milton Friedman.

Like many modern students, I came across him on YouTube, by watching the ten-part ‘Free to Choose’ series which was released along with his landmark book in 1980 (you can watch the first episode here).

Friedman’s arguments – and his manner of delivery – captured and held my attention.

This small, mild-mannered economist, born to a poor Jewish immigrant family in New York, could seemingly explain any point with ease while demonstrating a breadth of knowledge which appeared superhuman.

His stance was refreshingly independent.

“I’m not a conservative. A conservative is somebody who wants to keep things the way they are,” he said. “The word ‘liberal’ means of and pertaining to freedom. I believe in freedom, and a true liberal is somebody who believes in freedom.”

Liberalism in the American context had already become completely intertwined with statism, as it soon would in Europe also. Friedman, in contrast, called himself a libertarian – and if he were one, I was one.

There were many other political guides whose writings influenced me as I continued to study libertarian thought.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty provided a profound argument against the majoritarian tendencies which I saw all around me, and which I knew had been ever-present within the Ireland which my parents had grown up in: different bullies, using the same means, to dissimilar ends.

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek was extremely useful in explaining how the totalitarian roots of Nazism lay within the Left, and his essay on ‘Why I am not a conservative’ provided a neat summation of the problems within the conservative worldview: namely the fact that often times a “conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes.”

By my early 20s, I was confident that libertarianism contained within it the correct prescriptions for how a government in a free society should be allowed to operate.

I continue to believe in it. I believe that the vast majority of economic activity should be conducted within the private sector; that free trade should be practiced between nations; that government should be constitutionally limited; that ‘victimless crimes’ are no crimes at all; that prostitution, gambling and drug use should be legal; and that the state has a responsibility to protect people from others, and absolutely no business in protecting people from themselves.

Yet there was something lacking, and there always will be.

Freedom is not an end in itself. It can only be a means to an end: and that end is to live a worthwhile and noble life, while respecting your neighbours’ right to do the same.

While the ascent of freedom has continued in recent centuries, and with great benefits, history demonstrates the industrial-scale horror which educated, sophisticated people can inflict upon each other.

It is deeply unfair to blame the darkest chapters of modern history on the advance of what used to be known as classical liberalism, but the loss of that sense of community which conservatives often decry has clearly played a key role in humanity’s recent difficulties.

Faith in political institutions has declined, and a widespread ennui afflicts Western societies where people never been wealthier in material terms, and yet where they remain poor in spirit, and dissatisfied with their lot.

The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet’s seminal work, The Quest for Community, demonstrated how the alienation of modern life created serious problems, most notably the tendency for people to seek to solve the problems of atomisation by adopting statist solutions, no matter how absurd or abominable they might be.

The leading conservative philosopher Yuval Levin has built upon these ideas more recently, as has Patrick Deneen, whose best-selling book Why Liberalism Failed can be seen as an indictment of libertarianism as well.

Has their work – or recent events – shaken my faith in libertarianism?

No, but it has reminded me of the importance of continuity and community, without which no civilisation can endure.

That is why I remain a libertarian in practice, but a conservative in philosophy. I wish to preserve freedom, but I know that it is an ordered liberty that I seek.

As Burke wrote, society is a contract between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. The preservation and passing on of freedom should be the most important responsibility within that contract.

For conservative libertarians, it usually is.