Rethinking the strategy of ‘partial capitulations’

Rafael de Arízaga wrote the following after John Roberts handed the pro-life movement a tactical defeat in June Medical Services v. Russo:

“Conservatism has two modes in its inevitably futile opposition to revolutionary politics. The first is to moderate it, declare opposition to it, but to do so chiefly in the interest of restraining its most offensive excesses. By focusing on what he considers to be those excesses rather than on the principle that explains them, the moderate ends up being pulled to a position somewhere midway between his own and the revolutionary’s. But because there can be no real reconciling between the first principles of the true (Catholic) conservative and those of the true (liberal) revolutionary, this partial capitulation always results in a victory for the revolutionary. The stretch of political road, as it were, that the liberal revolutionary has forced the moderate to traverse in the argument is now legitimized by the fact of him traversing it.

“The second mode is to conserve the achievements of the revolution once they are attained. Because he does not wish to be seen as supplying principles or arguments that may rock the foundations of social order, whatever they may be, the conservative cannot but assent to the new arrangements that the revolutionary has created at his expense. The revolution’s new order is the law now, and the law must be obeyed, says the conservative, for if we try to uproot it, will we not be supplying the revolutionary a further pretext to uproot other good institutions?”

Yet more evidence that the binary between “progressive/liberal” and “conservative” is unhelpful. When even conservatives, at their best, produce “partial capitulations” resulting in “a[n incremental] victory for the revolutionary,” the game is over.

I think this partly explains the interest one the last few years in the classical legal tradition, for which Hadley Arkes and more recently Adrian Vermeule have been advocates.

I think it also explains why Alasdair MacIntyre’s plenary session talk last fall at Notre Dame was so explosive. We’ve spent decades talking, more or less constantly since the end of World War II, of human dignity. MacIntyre asks us to go deeper, to think instead about the characteristics of the good regime, one oriented to justice:

MacIntyre escapes the binary and shows us how we might, too.

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