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On the Political Stupidity of the Jews

By Irving Kristol

Whether in America or in their own sovereign country, Jews still have no idea what statecraft is.


 
The living presence of such a conservative tradition in Israel could contribute much, not only in changing the socialist atmosphere of the country. For example, it could move some to think in ways that might assist in bridging the divide between religious and secular Jews in Israel, which is one of the most vexing curses of Israeli politics. When I first started writing on conservatism, one of my major points was the need to reconcile Adam Smith with Edmund Burke—the economics of a free market with the political sociology of a conservative society. This contradiction between the two ways of thinking is a problem for American politics, since Smith’s perspective frequently clashes with that of Burke within the Republican Party. It is obviously, and very dramatically, a problem for Israeli politics, where those who have an appreciation for the importance of freedom frequently have difficulty understanding the role played in a healthy society by tradition, and vice versa.
Yet oddly enough, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke were friends who admired each other’s writings and, to the best of our knowledge, did not see them as being in conflict or fundamentally contradictory. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century, conservatives in Great Britain had no problem regarding them with equal respect. How did they manage it?
They managed it by being sensible and non-dogmatic, and by understanding that ideas that are incompatible in the abstract can often coexist and complement one another in practice, so long as the imperial sweep of these grand theories is limited by political wisdom, which is itself distilled from popular common sense. In a way, this is the most conservative of all ideas, that there is such a thing as wisdom and that, in the end, it is of greater importance in determining good policy than any theory. It is this idea which, more than any other, is in need of affirmation in our time. We live in an age when wisdom is suspect in the eyes of what can only be understood as an overweening rationalism, and when what works in practice is inevitably regarded with suspicion until it is proved in theory.
The history of economic thought in the modern era is worthy of study precisely because it represents a largely successful effort to make rational sense of the workings of the free market, which had once appeared to be nothing but a seething cauldron of anarchic individual impulses, which could in no way be reconciled with what was good for a society. Today, one can come by an understanding of why a market economy is so beneficial to society without too great an effort; a careful reading of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek will do the job. But this understanding flies in the face of our initial intuitions on the subject, so the educational effort to retain our hold on this tradition of ideas has to be constantly renewed, year after year, generation after generation, or the profound insights contained in these books will simply be lost. And unless government and society work diligently to “internalize” what has been learned on this subject, transforming the abstract economic ideas involved into practical habits of the heart, the ability to make sound decisions in this realm will continually slip from our grasp. In other words, government and society must take steps—educational steps, legal steps—which are independent of the market, and which are necessary to make the market possible and profitable for all of society.
The success involved in making a market economy work and prosper is a success of statesmanship—another conservative idea which is not rooted in ideology, but in experience. The statesman may pursue any policy, so long as it is derived from political wisdom concerning what has worked to protect and better society in the past, and so long as it continues to work well in the present. And statesmanship is something that both Israel and the United States are today noticeably lacking.
Now, if we have such a successful and refined political tradition in economic affairs, which leaves so much up to the initiative and decisions of the individual, why do we need religion? Doesn’t liberty suffice to create the good society? Although there are certainly those who make this claim, the Western conservative tradition holds otherwise. According to conservative thought, a market economy cannot work except in a society comprised of people who are, in sufficient degree, bourgeois: That is, people who are orderly, law-abiding and diligent, and who resolutely defer gratification—sexual as well as financial—so that, despite the freedom granted each individual, the future nonetheless continues to be nourished at the expense of the present. For people of this kind to lead lives of this kind, it seems to be the case that religion is indispensable. This appears to be a sociological truth. It is religion that reassures people that this world of ours is a home, not just a habitat, and that the tragedies and unfairness we all experience are features of a more benign, if not necessarily comprehensible, whole. It is religion that restrains the self-seeking hedonistic impulse so easily engendered by a successful market economy.
It is here that Edmund Burke makes such a decisive contribution to the political tradition of the West. Not that he was a particularly pious man (he was not a pious man) or a brilliant theologian (he was no kind of theologian). Burke’s importance lies in the fact that he was a secular political theorist who could explain, to a critical mind, why a religious orthodoxy (like a political orthodoxy) can make intellectual sense. My wife, Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb, tells a pertinent story from a graduate course she taught on British political thought. In her class there was an Orthodox young woman, quiet and industrious. After several class sessions devoted to a close reading of Edmund Burke, this young woman approached my wife, and told her: “Now I know why I am Orthodox.” What she meant was that she could now defend Orthodoxy in terms that made sense to the non-Orthodox, because she could now defend a strong deference to tradition which is the keystone of any orthodoxy in the language of rational secular discourse, which was the language in which Burke wrote.
It is the idea of tradition as a political concept which was central to the ideological debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the latter being one of the best-known exponents of the French Revolution. It was Paine who declared: Let the dead bury their dead. It was Burke, on the other hand, who argued that the dead should have the right of suffrage. We should in effect give them the vote in deciding on the ordering of our government and society because of the wisdom which we may gain from the ideas which they had derived from their experience.
Paine won this debate, unfortunately, which is why arguments based on tradition make so little headway with most young people today. There was a game I used to play with my own students in New York to try to assist them in understanding Burke’s point. I would point out that in the United States, we have fifty states which are extremely different from one another in size, population, natural resources, per capita income, and so on. Yet despite these differences, each of these states has the same powers for dealing with such crucial matters as education, energy, transportation and welfare within its borders. Moreover, each of these fifty states sends two members to the United States Senate. I would ask them whether this was reasonable. Of course, they did not think so, and in the blink of an eye they would begin redrawing the map of the United States, completely redesigning the country so that all the states were more equal in every possible respect. Only once they had thought about it did they begin to wonder whether this perfectly egalitarian scheme made practical sense. They realized that the people living in other regions had social, economic and political attitudes which were not identical to those of New Yorkers, and that the new regions that they were inventing were not going to be homogeneous areas with a homogeneous population. And as they thought about this, they began to realize that at least some of the states represent local interests and points of view which would be silenced by their efforts to reach a kind of a pure rationalism in politics.
On the other hand, given the opportunity to study both Paine and Burke, there will always be some students who find Burke more persuasive. These include students who are subscribers to a religious tradition or are thinking vaguely of drawing closer to such a tradition. Burke is not usually thought of as a defender of Jews or Judaism, to which he seems to have given little thought. But it is interesting to read his remarks on what he called “prejudice”—by which he meant habit, custom, convention, tradition—with the Orthodox Jewish tradition in mind. According to Burke:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action … and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
 


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