Politics & Policy

What Political Philosophy Can’t Do

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It will take decades for such debates to bear fruit. For a more immediate effect on the country, look to public policy.

Since 2016, the conservative intellectual movement has seen a resurgence of interest in political philosophy. Foundational questions about the nature of liberty, the limits of markets, and the purpose of government are publicly debated with new interest and fervor. You might expect a conservative professor of political philosophy to find all this exciting. Instead I have mainly found myself worrying about these debates and the effect they could have on participants and spectators alike.

It would of course be terrible if the only way to study political philosophy were through semester-long seminars, supervised and graded by us professors, on the greatest texts of the Western tradition. Everyone I know in my academic field has a special admiration for those who share our intellectual interests while preferring to avoid the confines of the ivory tower. But we do still have our professional pride, and it is not entirely misplaced. We custodians of old books are supposed (at least) to be peddling one commodity that journalists and autodidacts sometimes run short on: intellectual humility.

For we have already read their arguments and insights about the nature of politics. In fact, we have already read clearer and better versions of them. And we have usually then watched those clearer and better versions devastatingly refuted by the greatest minds in Western history. No one has ever topped Aristotle’s rejoinder to social-contract theory, Plato’s critiques of relativism, Cicero’s demolition of Stoic moralism, Augustine’s evisceration of “civil religion,” Locke’s defenestration of the divine right of kings, or Socrates’ rebuttal to a young man who had tried to defend the institution of “friends with benefits.”

If anyone manages in our lifetime to improve on the long-running conversation among these and other great Western thinkers, it will probably not be in a 2,000-word op-ed. Hard questions require long arguments and slow thinking. When your readers have ten minutes to absorb an argument that it took Hobbes ten years to compose, you will unavoidably end up pretending that your conclusions are more obvious than in fact they are. From there it becomes natural to conclude that anyone who does not share your conclusions must be stupid or immoral or both. Before long you will be treating your opponents with a contempt that makes Locke’s treatment of Sir Robert Filmer look like a model of intellectual charity. It is no accident that our recent philosophical discussions on the right have seen substantive debate rapidly degenerate into self-righteous accusations of socialism, libertinism, proto-fascism, blind ideology, smug amoralism, dogmatism, unpatriotism, Luddism, hypocrisy, cowardice, and tyranny.

Social media then of course make these debates a hundred times worse, as they do to everything they touch. If you thought 2,000-word political philosophy was bad, try 280-character political philosophy.

Even in the absence of Twitter, though, all these problems would be to some extent unavoidable. Because questions of political philosophy are intrinsically interesting, they attract perennial interest among thoughtful people. And if young people are to come to share that interest, they will need well-informed pundits who can show, however crudely, that the answers to these questions really do bear on the concrete challenges we face in politics and human life today. Probably everyone who has spent any time thinking about political philosophy was originally drawn to it by some contemporary “hook.” We should remain grateful for that.

My main worry is simply that talented pundits or public intellectuals should not be writing solely, or even primarily, for an audience of the young and young at heart. Whatever each of us may think about the nature and purpose of government, we can all agree that anyone still undecided about the nature and purpose of government — anyone who risks a major change in views after reading a 2,000-word or even a 5,000-word article on political philosophy — has no business shaping our public policy. And we still need well-informed people to shape our public policy. It is these active citizens and policymakers who should be the primary audience of those who write on politics for a living.

There is a time and a place to be young. The oldest professors even say that, when one works with the young and truly engages their concerns, one is granted the delightful experience of becoming in a way young again. Every parent has some version of that experience. But as every parent also knows, there is a time and a place to take on the tasks of a grownup, no matter how unprepared for them one may feel. Those tasks surely include public-policy decisions and anything directly related to them.

I therefore do not mean to criticize anyone who feels called to write yet another article or book attacking or defending, in the abstract, some set of propositions about the virtues of free markets or the contours of the common good. Everyone should labor at his vocation. But those who take up that particular vocation should do so in awareness of the tradeoffs it involves, and of the division of labor to which it belongs. The entire genre of big-ideas-only journalism is a long-term investment in the future of the conservative movement. It promises to bear fruit (at best) ten to 50 years from now, in the careers of the young conservatives whom it awakens and provokes to further thought and study. It does virtually no good for us in the next decade.

And the next decade offers no shortage of serious policy challenges. To the extent that our most talented thinkers and writers spend their time and energy dredging up the deep questions of philosophic principle that divide the conservative coalition, they will be distracted from tackling those policy challenges and may alienate other thinkers who could help them do so. If they wish to content themselves with the longer-range satisfactions granted to us professional formers of young souls, we can hardly begrudge them. But I cannot escape the impression that every single participant in these recent conservative debates (always excepting my fellow academics) is trying to have a more immediate effect on the direction of our country. If so, I would respectfully propose that they spend less time doing free advertising for our graduate seminars and more time solving today’s problems.

As any reader of this publication is surely aware, high-quality work on public policy offers its own set of intrinsic satisfactions. They differ significantly from the unique satisfaction of slow progress toward clarity on political-philosophical questions. And they can be enjoyed only by those who accept forms of intellectual discipline quite different from anything that political philosophy requires. If the literary genre of the philosophical opinion piece gave young people the impression that they could contribute to our nation’s policy conversation without subjecting themselves to the intellectual discipline peculiar to public policy, it would be giving them a mistaken impression indeed.

Public-policy work forces one to spend long hours researching crucial sociological details that are of no philosophic significance whatsoever. It forces one to become a partisan, accepting the sometimes embarrassing alliances that make up the political coalitions through which any practical victory will have to be won. In public, it forces one to make common cause with, and to find ways to appeal to, and even to chase after approval from, crude fellow partisans who will never grasp the nuances of one’s own carefully thought-through position. In private, it forces one at least to collaborate with and learn from extremely intelligent peers who will never share one’s deepest philosophic commitments. In the place of boundless philosophical inquiry, public policy forces one to train one’s imagination to work within the almost infinitely narrower bounds of the politically possible, while simultaneously remaining as creative as possible within those bounds.

Inside our best think tanks and journals on both right and left, plenty of brilliant thinkers do grownup policy work in precisely this spirit of nonideological practicality. A few such thinkers can even be found in the halls of government. Nor, it should be obvious, is chronological age what determines who the “grownups” are here: The old can be young, and the young can be mature. In the current issue (February 10) of National Review, I highlight a stellar example of nonideological policy work by a junior congressional staffer. Meanwhile, every day on political Twitter one can watch Gen Xers and Boomers behave like college sophomores.

As a much smaller set of living examples shows us, individuals who excel at grownup policy work are also capable of offering genuinely philosophical reflections on the nature of politics. I insist only that these are two different tasks, performed at two different times, requiring two different sets of skills, which in practice tend — not necessarily, but as a rule — to interfere with one another. Young people who find themselves attracted to both of these tasks ought to pause and think before trying to accomplish both at the same time, at least in their professional lives. They are likely to end up doing neither well.

The not-so-young who, in the sole hope of educating the young, wish to publicly rehash questions already well settled in their own minds, ought likewise to pause and think. The profoundly interesting intellectual fault lines within the conservative coalition merit ongoing exploration and rethinking, but they will not go away in the lifetime of any of us. And at some point, we still need to come together to make real policy decisions. As Leo Strauss warned us, the cardinal rule of theory is to let no sleeping dogs lie, but the cardinal rule of practice is to let sleeping dogs lie.

Work in the field of politics requires friends. It also requires a certain looseness in one’s usage of the term “friends.” Fortunately, that loose usage comes naturally to anyone who cares about achieving any practical goal and is aware of how many obstacles stand in its way. Common enemies make for good political friends. The conservative coalition, like any political coalition, is held together primarily by awareness of its common enemies. When seemingly distant points on the philosophical spectrum get refracted through the narrow prism of the politically feasible, they turn into nuances of color that can easily be blended by a political artist of even modest talents. This is why the study of political first principles can tell us only so much about the crafting of public policy: Real policy will always be the product of common efforts by political friends who disagree with each other over political first principles.

Meanwhile, the public quest for philosophic clarity unavoidably involves turning political friends into intellectual enemies. This is especially true when that quest is undertaken in journalistic form. It becomes even more true outside the protecting cocoon of the academy — where tenure secures freedom of speech, common guild membership encourages mutual respect, and countless informal norms (always underestimated by non-academics) foster lively but civil debate. Should conservative intellectuals outside the academy be seeking out enemies among their fellow conservative intellectuals? Young people capable of serious policy work do not necessarily need that kind of example, and older authors capable of serious policy work do not necessarily need that kind of distraction.

I conclude: If you want to study political philosophy, then study it. If you want to improve your country, then devote yourself to policy work or to teaching the young — or even to both, but don’t confuse the two. And if you want to write philosophical opinion pieces, then write them, but don’t confuse them with either political philosophy or policy work. At best, such pieces are like a professor’s opening-day lecture: a little song and dance to grab the young folks’ attention so the real work can begin.

Daniel E. Burns is associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and is currently on leave.

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