Reason and Prescription – Part 1 (The Trouble With Naked Reason)


We now get to Chapter 5 of Yuval Levin’s book The Great DebateReason and Prescription”.  It’s the best one; the core of a moral imagination that the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, so much so that we’ll need a few weeks to unpack the ideas in this largest wardrobe compartment.  Burke destroys the radical liberal self-appointed beacons of reason, who champion reason above all, because they clearly mistake a part for the whole.  Human nature includes reason, but reason is only a part, and by no means the greatest part.


An emphasis on abstract reasoned theories is troublesome for three reasons: 1) Gratifying the schemes of visionary, speculative politicians becomes a matter of proving a point, not advancing interests of people; 2) It ignores particulars – reasoned theories are general, whereas circumstances and problems are specific – egalitarian abstraction fails to focus on actual people; and 3) Principles always go to extremes – tyranny and despotism; chasing a theoretical principle never ends (politics will never, ever achieve equality and it’s ridiculous to make trying the only goal).


Moreover, a myopic focus on naked reason is simply ineffective. It assumes that an individual, drawing upon evident principles, can assess the truth or falsehood of any proposition.  Centuries of reflection and debate by brilliant thinkers have gone by without a resolution on the matter (these issues are still hotly debated today); and that points to a limit to human reason.  But there is profound wisdom inherent in the cultural capital passed down through prior generations that deserves the benefit of the doubt.


Our wardrobe of a moral imagination has a coat of prejudice in it.  Now, the knee jerk reaction to the loaded word “prejudice” is bad; and an individual bias without evidence or reason is bad.  But some moral questions should be allowed to be prejudged by the collective wisdom of prior generations.  The customs, habits and values we inherit matter.  It’s a kind of moral heuristic – to cast away the coat of prejudice leaving nothing but naked reason is unwise and immoral.  Next week, Burke reveals a powerful war chest defensive weapon – an entailed legal inheritance that all wealth owners enjoy.


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Choice and Obligation


Chapter 4 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is “Choice and Obligation”. Where is the line between the moral clothing that we choose to wear and the moral clothing that we are compelled to wear?  The radical liberal position focuses on choice – natural rights, which are an entitlement for all.  Paine and other hardcore individualists believe that everyone is a proprietor in society and draws on the common capital as a right.  Equality is central and the right to choose is the end goal.  Any duty owed is an obligation to make room for everyone else’s choice.  “The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me.”  Wear whatever you want!


Edmund Burke and others understand that absolute, unrestrained democracy is a problem. Choice is part of a free society but it’s not the end goal.  Placing choice at the center is both impractical and conceptually erroneous.  In majority mob rule, anything can be justified as an “act of the people”.  If the only authority is the moment’s popular will, there would be debilitating uncertainty and it’s also just plain wrong – it makes no difference if a majority chooses it “as no one of us men can dispense with public or private faith, or with any other tie of moral obligation, so neither can any number of us”.  Sometimes choice is not an option – we have profound, unchosen moral obligations.


We enter society not by choice but by birth, the facts of which are inescapable. Every human enters the world that already exists – a world in which we belong to a particular family and community that are responsible for us and toward which we in turn have obligations.  There is a long standing bitter disagreement over whether it is possible or even desirable to be liberated from these basic facts.  The Burke conservative worldview accepts reality and views society and the predisposed order of things as beginning with the family – not the individual.


The fabric of law and morality is obligation – moral duties – which are a sheltering bulwark between civilization and barbarism.  Our strongest moral obligations are never the result of choice.  Parents and children may not be consenting to their moral relations but they are bound to essential duties.  Radical liberals take the concept of liberty too far.  Burke writes “what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?  It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.”  True, virtuous liberty is not solitary, individual selfish liberty, it is restraint; “men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”.  It’s a lazy, uncivilized, undisciplined philosophy to idealize freedom without considering restraint, duty and honor; “to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in a consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind”.   Our estate planning war chest is a wardrobe of moral imagination containing obligatory garments, which are our privilege and honor to wear.

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Justice and Order


Chapter 3 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is “Justice and Order”. We can now fully clothe our naked animal nature with a beautifully flowing robe of moral order and justice. Paine grounds his idea of justice in a simple principle that governments should be chosen by the people and respect their equal rights and interests.  He believed justice could be discerned through reason.  Burke has a much more sophisticated and nuanced notion of justice.  True, ultimate justice (from God or pursued via natural law philosophy) cannot be uncovered by reason alone.  What matters is not the violent, barbaric beginnings of society or someone’s current opinion of what justice is – what matters is the journey humanity has taken towards achieving never quite achievable or even finally knowable justice.


We are the result of a long chain of tradition and moral practices; a sacred chain that is to be guarded, not because its origins were perfect. It’s the chain itself that’s important because we are all linked through time across generations [see my 7/29/15 post].  And this brings us to equality.  Paine argues that society should focus on equality.  Burke understood that society is sustained by inheritance, which necessarily perpetuates inequality.  And this inequality, which grows out of the nature of time, custom, succession, accumulation and improvement of property, is nearer to true equality than the artificial equality of levelers and social planners. It’s what Burke calls moral equality.  “All men have equal rights, but not to equal things


The idea of forcing everything to an artificial equality is a utopian ideal that is misguided and impractical. Peace, prosperity and stability are more important for everyone, and are not well served by the endless pursuit of equality, because social equality is an unachievable goal.  In a society sustained by inheritance, wealth tends to stay in certain families and beyond the reach of others; not that social mobility is impossible, or that some are unworthy, but equality should not be the primary goal of politics.


Burke doesn’t just defend the status quo – those born of privilege and those born of toil need not remain there. However, the suitability for having power has a lot to do with property and leisure, which tend to be inherited.  [Leisure for education – time to study and reflect upon philosophy, economics and law – not idleness]  Burke believes in equality of opportunity, equality of human dignity, but in the real world, human capabilities vary wildly and it’s dishonest and immoral to pretend otherwise.  Burke writes:

The savage hath within him the seeds of the logician, of the man of taste and breeding, the orator, the statesman, the man of virtue, and the saint, which seeds, though planted in his mind by nature, yet, through want of culture, and exercise, must lie forever buried, and be hardly perceivable by himself or others.


A select few form a kind of natural aristocracy, sustaining certain social and political inequalities, for society’s own good because it produces a stable, peaceful social order. A hereditary aristocracy creates strong barriers against abuses by establishing powerful habits and obligations of restraint in rulers and the ruled alike, all grounded in social relationships and class distinctions.  To remove these traditional restraints would mean empowering only the State to restrain individuals, which always results in tyranny.


Social order and justice leads us to the question of what we are free to do contrasted against what we must do.  Next week, our War Chest journey through the wardrobe of a moral imagination moves on to the matter of choice and obligation.


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Crawling Up from Barbarism


Chapter 2 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is titled “Nature and History”.  It’s where we begin a multi-week journey through the wardrobe of a moral imagination.  The fundamental disagreement between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine starts with radically differing views on the importance of human history and exactly what we mean by human nature.


Paine insists that in order to understand human nature we have to go back to its earliest and deepest roots. The true nature of man, before history, gives rise to his natural rights.  The core of human nature is that we are all equal individuals.  Paine believed that social hierarchies have no natural foundation because they arose through a history of coercion.  Existing power structures stem from some usurper who established himself over others by force.  Burke rejects this emphasis on nature over history because it reduces human history to nothing more than a process of illegitimate governments forming and then oppressing people.  That line of reasoning could be used to undermine any human institution.


The beginning of society is always some form of barbarism. But over time, we rise, becoming more mature as society mellows into legal governments that were violent in their commencement.   Burke criticizes Paine’s oversimplification of humans as separate, equal, rational beings.  That cold, lonely, naked perspective misses the reality of man as a social creature of not just pure reason, but of sympathies, sentiments and passions. Passion is natural but dangerous because if you “leave a man to his passions, you leave a wild beast to a savage and capricious nature”.  One way or another, reason applies through passion, so it’s crucial to tend to our “moral imagination” to avoid violence and disorder.  We cannot simply argue away our vices with reason, but we can be deterred from indulging in them by moral sentiments.  These moral practices arose throughout history via a system of old fashioned chivalry – values that pacify two potentially dangerous relationships:  Between men and women.  Between rulers and the ruled.


Thomas Paine was a revolutionary, arguing to strip away all unchosen bonds and obligations – which are barriers to the true, pure, equal individual nature of humans.  He considered inheritance the root of all societal evil.  The powerful pass their illegitimate power on to their children, denying others their natural rights, resulting in oppression, poverty, wars and injustice.  Chivalry is an antiquated excuse for maintaining existing, unfair power relationships and to keep the poor from rising, in Pain’s view.  But Burke never argued for static adherence to past practices, he suggests gradual political reform, improving on our existing regime – evolution not revolution.  Past moral practices are valuable not because their old but because they’re advanced – having developed through many centuries of trial and error.


Now that we’ve crawled up from barbarism, the next drawer in the wardrobe of our moral imagination is a dispute about justice and social order along with two very different understandings of social equality.

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Wardrobe of a Moral Imagination


Ideas matter…. a lot, because they can manifest into either prosperity and happiness or suffering and death. Important ideas start as opinions, then become beliefs and finally end as values.  The corrupted values of our institutions (the media, academia and politicians) are apparent and have moved to disturbing new levels, becoming even more obnoxious and arrogant.  An arrogant person is annoying; an arrogant person with inferior ideas is even more annoying; and a wrong arrogant person who works to impose misguided values upon everyone else is the worst.


The Great Debate – Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (2013) by Yuval Levin is a book that digs deeply down into the historic roots of the moral debate that continues to this day in politics, economics, philosophy and law. Levin analyzes, in vivid detail, the bitter public dispute between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in the late 1700’s revealing (what many would argue) the superiority of Burke’s arguments.


Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a brilliant, passionate, chivalrous writer who was appalled that revolutionary thinkers were trying to destroy ancient western morality. He writes:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd and antiquated.


Today’s naked vulgar – ‘do whatever you want’ – public morality is in need of proper intellectual clothing. Let’s embark on a War Chest exploration of this wardrobe of a moral imagination in the coming weeks by peering into the drawers holding Yuval Levin’s collection of Burke’s moral garments, which Paine sought to strip away:

Ch. 2 Nature and History

Ch. 3 Justice and Order

Ch. 4 Choice and Obligation

Ch. 5 Reason and Prescription

Ch. 6 Revolution and Reform

Ch. 7 Generations and the Living

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They’ll Never Learn


The third and final battlefront protecting wealth is the most grave. If the immorality and impracticality barriers to socialism are breached, then we get to mass death and misery.  It’s not necessary to speculate on the likelihood of this result.  It’s a matter of history.


“No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead”.   That’s from Alan Charles Kors’ essay Can there be an “After Socialism”? (2003). How can anyone familiar with history who has a well-functioning mind and heart read that piece and say – ‘yeah, but socialism’s still a good idea’?


Coercive socialist policy leads to the termination of human life and the destruction of capital. Wealth is delicate and can be shattered and lost over time.  George Gilder writes that capital is not a stock of goods.  It’s a free flow of ideas; a mindscape of volatile, shifting knowledge and relationships that cannot be seized by the State.  Wealth “is not an inventory of stuff.  It’s an organic living entity, a fragile, pulsing tissue of ideas, expectations, loyalties, moral commitments and visions; to vivisect it for redistribution is to kill it.”  Mainstream intellectuals just don’t seem to get that and they probably never will.  The deadly problem is that if policy makers buy their deceptive arguments – aggressive attempted wealth redistribution will devastate the poor while destroying huge amounts of global wealth.


The bad idea of socialism persists because mainstream media, political operatives and academics are anti free market. Professors, news media and filmmakers ignore the capitalism vs. socialism comparative inquiry that has been rigorously debated for decades (with free market ideas kicking the snot out of centrally planned economics).  Some people reject capitalism because they don’t know any better; others because they’ve been indoctrinated with social justice warrior nonsense from the various race, class and gender grievance disciplines in academia, which are hostile to capitalism.


But the tide has turned. The influence of our arrogant elites is crumbling.  The public no longer believes that power and influence should be predicated on titles and fancy Ivy League degrees; it should be based on demonstrable, valuable, real-world knowledge and proven moral character.  The global outrage that resulted in Trump and Brexit is a reflection of a growing recognition that our elites have not earned the status they assume is rightfully theirs.  As Victor David Hanson puts it:  “The self-described ‘best and brightest of or our time’ are has-beens, having enjoyed influence without real merit or visible achievement.”  They’ll never learn and their time is up.



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Tied to the Mast


The classic moral justification for capitalism starts with Adam Smith. In spite of natural selfishness, people are led by an “invisible hand” – without intending or knowing it they advance the best interests of society by pursing their own interests.  Inequality and poverty are moral wrongs but we need wealth to survive and thrive, so we accept it as part of the deal.  Other moral justifications include the right to wealth and incentive – the creator of wealth has a moral right to it and wealth is an incentive to its creation.  But that doesn’t get to the real morality of vast wealth concentrations and global poverty.  We all need motivation to work hard, innovate and take risks; but Mark Zuckerberg was worth $14 billion at age 30.  Do we need that much motivation?


George Gilder believes capitalism works because the creators of wealth are granted the right along with the burden of re-investing it.  If wealth owners try to take it/cash out or exploit wealth, it tends to evaporate.  In the early days of Microsoft, if Bill Gates tried to leave the company or cash out, its value would have plummeted faster than he could get the value out.  He said “I am tied to the mast of Microsoft”.  Socialists want to seize capital for the masses but they fail to understand that detached from a capitalist, there is no capital.  Assets quickly wither and die without capitalists to tend them.  When Spain raided South America of its gold, it became rich and began smugly purchasing goods produced by other countries.  But when the gold was gone, Spain was an impoverished nation because it neglected its human capital, which is more important than the fruits of human capital.


Gilder writes: The process of wealth creation is offensive to levelers and planners because it yields mountains of new wealth in ways that could not possibly be planned.   It defies every econometric model and socialist scheme.  It makes no sense to most college professors, who attain their positions by the systematic acquisition of credentials pleasing to the leftist establishment above them.  Leading entrepreneurs do not ascend a hierarchy; they create a new one.


And once wealth is created, to maintain and increase it is just as difficult: Gilder writes:  A pot of honey attracts flies as well as bears.  Bureaucrats, politicians, academics, journalists, business writers and missionaries all think they could invest money better than its owners.  Aspiring spenders besiege owners in the name of charity, idealism, envy and social change.  But it’s the legal owners of businesses who have the clearest interest in building and preserving wealth rather than spending it on themselves.  They consume only a small portion of their holdings because as owners, they are the ones damaged most by mismanagement, exploitation or waste.


Government cannot seize our War Chest capital. We are forever mindful of it; tied to its mast.  But, a voyaging ship of knowledge and power is not a bad vehicle on which to be bound.  We are grateful for our blessings and responsible with our wealth.  Give thanks for the burden of managing assets prudently.  Happy Thanksgiving from The Estate Planning War Chest.

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