Blond at Georgetown, II
Like Will, I was at Philip Blond’s Georgetown lecture on Thursday. Unlike Will, I was predisposed to agree with everything Blond said. I came away a bit disappointed, though.
I find little to argue with in the actual policies he proposes, which mostly involve empowering local bodies, public and private, and disempowering large or international bodies, public and private.
His philosophical positions, however, are a little incoherent at the margins. For instance, he fully endorsed the position that we need an account of what a good life consists in in order to make political decisions, a position familiar to critics of Liberalism from an Aristotelian point of view, but then identified himself as an “Antique Liberal” (while in the same breath condemning Locke) and declared his allegiance to the liberal premise that individuals in pluralistic societies should follow their own conceptions of the good while debating them publicly and neutrally with others. He did not try to give an account of how the state might embody so-called “thick” views about what makes for a good life while at the same time serving as a referee amongst the many competing visions of the good life put forward by its citizens.
This was shortly after saying, puzzlingly, that his work was in the MacIntyrean tradition but that he doesn’t think MacIntyre is right about the failure of public reason in liberal society, which is, after all a fairly central element of MacIntyre’s position and its derivatives.
Most confusing of all was his position on markets. He condemned neo-liberalism, but his reasons for doing so oscillated during the talk. On the one hand he seemed to suggest that the problem with neo-liberals is that they were not thorough enough, undermining the true principle of laissez faire with various state subsidies for various large businesses. On the other hand, he floated the idea that the whole idea of free markets relies on a misconstrual of human sociality, a criticism entirely at odds with his first.
I am grateful that Blond has the ear of David Cameron, and I certainly hope that his influence is decisive in determining the future course of the UK. But while I recognize the difficulty of articulating a contemporary conservative vision that isn’t in thrall to neo-liberalism, I can’t see that his views add up to a coherent political philosophy independent of the exigencies of policy.
Update: A friend of mine offers a tentative rejoinder:
Friend: Maybe he’s like [Fr. Richard] Neuhaus? That is to say, any reason can be public reason and ground public decisions, but no group should have power to translate their beliefs directly into public action. So, thin “neutrality.” And another Neuhausian notion that’s easy to misunderstand is “good liberalism,” which for him had little to do with Locke and nothing to do with Bentham and Mill. He thought proper liberalism was essentially the belief that the modern state was dangerous and so should be limited to protect what John Courtney Murray charmingly called societies various “conspiracies” (spaces where people ‘breathe together’) including churches and families. I think he was problematically vague in his understanding of how individual liberty was connected with conspiratorial liberty. He seemed to think that you could theorizeliberalism with only the two terms of “individual” and “state,” giving the former inalienable rights against the latter, but because individuals are persons, they will naturally use their liberty to form and protect their conspiracies. Of course things don’t seem to work that way. Once you establish individual rights as the dominant public idea, you erode communal integrity and ironically empower the state. But anyway, if Blond is mistaken, perhaps his mistakes are Neuhausian?