Is It Really Commercial Activity that Civilizes?

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Don’t let references to “the dismal science” fool you. Classical liberal economics is actually a pretty optimistic way to look at life. Liberals maintain that markets create wealth, promote mutual gain, and unlock talents and resources in individuals and nations. And, they say, markets have political benefits. Since the Enlightenment, liberals have argued that markets promote civic pluralism by making people more reasonable and prudent; less given to political and, especially, religious enthusiasm; and eager to avoid divisive debates about deep commitments. That markets have these advantages is known as the doux commerce thesis. (That’s doux as in soft, or having a…

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Orwell’s Blind Spot

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During the torture session in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, mere minutes away from the horrors of Room 101, states through cracked lips that Big Brother can’t last. Telling the Inner Party Member O’Brien that he doesn’t believe in God, Smith also expresses a metaphysical faith that the regime would collapse: I know  that you will fail.  There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome. Smith named this “something “the “Spirit of Man.” Such a moment flies in the face of George Orwell’s reputation as a rock-solid empiricist. That his creation, Winston Smith, would rely on gut feelings over fact, about…

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The Emersonian Jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Legal scholars are endlessly fascinated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935). To some, he is “the great dissenter,” whose frequently quoted opinions were a harbinger of Legal Realism. Sympathetic biographers and playwrights have described him as the “Magnificent Yankee” and the “Yankee from Olympus.” To many libertarians, Holmes was an avatar of Progressivism, and the architect of the reviled notion of “judicial restraint.” Richard Posner celebrates Holmes, whom he regards as “the most illustrious figure in the history of American law,” as a pioneering legal pragmatist. Felix Frankfurter deemed him a “genius,” and Holmes’ 1881 book, The Common Law, has…

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Tocqueville Unplugged

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Though intellectuals write endlessly about politics, relatively few enter the fray directly. One exception to this rule was the author of Democracy in America (1835, 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). These texts effectively serve as bookends to Alexis de Tocqueville’s active, albeit unsuccessful, career during the turbulent years of France’s July monarchy, the short-lived Second Republic, and finally the Second Empire established by that most enigmatic of political adventurers, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Tocqueville served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies for much of King Louis-Philippe’s 18-year reign, a member of the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting…

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A Love-Hate Relationship with Publius

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For those wondering whether Sanford Levinson, the distinguished constitutional provocateur who has called the Founding document “undemocratic” and called for its radical reform, harbors hostility toward the political theory that established our nation, his book An Argument Open to All: Reading The Federalist in the 21st Century is his answer. It is not that he loved Publius less, but that he loved democracy more. An Argument Open to All, an essay-by-essay reply to The Federalist, is in many ways a love letter to Publius—the kind that a spouse in a marriage of lasting standing might write. It visits and revisits long-running arguments,…

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Contesting the Re-Primitivism of the West

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Does Catholicism expand civilization? Thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Gregor Johann Mendel, and the Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo, the answer seems an obvious “yes.”  However, it is also undoubtedly true that a snap survey on any street in the West would find a decent number of respondents either angered by the suggestion or just clueless. John M. Rist thinks the answer certainly “yes.” What’s more, he thinks that re-primitivism (to borrow a term Aurel Kolnai used in his 1938 War Against the West) threatens our civilization, and only Catholicism has the theoretical heft to ward it off. It is…

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The Principled Statesman

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There is no doubt that Burke studies have received a new point of departure in Richard Bourke’s masterful Empire and Revolution.  This work of surpassing scholarship enables us to place Burke fully in the context of the political history through which he lived.  In many ways it is an authoritative demonstration of the Cambridge School approach of examining ideas in context, only here the connection is even more integral than is generally the case.  Burke not only developed his ideas out of the political setting in which he found himself, but shaped that setting through the sheer intellectual force of…

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Rehashed Revolution

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The French Revolution is a historical episode of apparently endless and enduring fascination. Much more so than the American Revolution, which displayed stronger continuities with the society and regime it supplanted, the French Revolution continues to engross our curiosity because of the dramatic reversals to which it gave rise. The Revolution shows us the birth of modernity, and the transformation in a few years of an apparently unshakeable monarchy, hedged about by tradition, custom, and divine sanctions, into a republic. It was the seed-bed of influential if not always well-conceived political and social theories, and its interpretation by generations of…

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Welfare Statism at the Heart of the American Revolution?

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Steven Pincus’ The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government presents a radically new and bold neoliberal economic perspective on British and North American colonial politics in the era of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). This brief work—with three chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue in the space of 150 pages of text—offers the provocative thesis that the colonial Patriot movement and the meaning and intent of the Declaration of Independence were predominantly concerned with developmental economic issues, and that the Declaration gave birth to a political-economic debate that is highly relevant to the economic issues of…

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Does Religion Kill Democracy?

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Several commentators (such as the book-writing team of John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge) have documented the recent rise of religion across the globe. The resurgence of religion is a direct challenge to the “secularization thesis,” the idea that as enlightenment, scientific knowledge and technology spread, the force of religion contracts. Other writers (Larry Diamond, for example) have called attention to the decline of democracy on a global scale, and in particular the “democratic deficit” in parts of the world where religion remains a powerful force. Is there a relationship between these two trends? Does religion undermine democracy? There may be a…

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