Friday, November 03, 2006

Passion for the Prudent

Obviously I have been reading the Pieper book on Prudence (thanks to a suggestion from my Holy Family Parish friend Jim Jacobs). At some point I hope to do a precis for this space if I can keep it short enough. For now I wanted to say something about today’s two quotations, by way of distinguishing an American Christian politics from both today’s liberalism and today’s conservatism.

The first quote, about good intentions not being enough, was at the heart of the post-War conservative movement. The great fault of liberals in those days—and the reason they were skewered so easily by, e.g,. my boyhood hero and later friend and mentor Bill Buckley—was that for them politics seemed to be wholly a matter of motive. If, for instance, you were a good person and wanted to help the poor you favored an expansion of welfare programs. If you favored the working man you favored the minimum wage.

The obvious corollary to this simple-minded view was that anyone, e.g. conservatives, who demurred must therefore hate the poor and wish ill to the working man. For liberals this world view had two results. They did not govern very well—because they were too little interested in the unintended consequences of their programs. And they began losing elections because they could not to take seriously the arguments of their adversaries, whom they dismissed as moral lepers.

So I joined up with the clear-eyed conservatives. Conservatism in those days was the best available political expression of the realist tradition in philosophy, and thus represented a commitment to prudence, the particular virtue of statecraft.

But that brings us to the second quote “Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent…” The heart of Pieper’s argument is that in the Christian tradition prudence is not mere tactical skill and certainly not mere reticence or moral miserliness. The prudent man is not Odysseus “the great tactician.” The prudent man is the man who, knowing the good for man in general, also understands the concrete reality of a given set of circumstances well enough to know how to choose for the good in those circumstances.

It is on this point, being willing and able to paint a picture of the good life for man that conservatives tended to fall short. I think this was forgivable under the circumstances. Socialism, was alive and dangerous, at home and abroad. And we had no prospect of winning political power. Naturally we focused on reducing the slice of life addressed by politics rather than on expanding a political vision. Conservative causes like school vouchers or, more broadly, strict adherence to the Constitution’s text, were all efforts at replacing acrimonious politics with pluralism or what Bob Bork famously called “neutral principles.” Tax cuts in those days were not mostly about boosting GDP, but about shifting resources from public ideas of the good to private ones.

We may have been right at the time. But what does seem clear to me is while a Christian politics must differ from liberalism in its embrace of prudence, it differs from conservatism in that its first, highest, and even most political (or evangelical) work is to paint the picture.


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