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Fight! Fight! A Knotty Problem Indeed

In the crosshairs again.

Our friend Stephen Knott of the Naval War College, featured here recently during his induction into the Power Line 100, is the subject of a spirited attack from a brand new website called NomocracyinPolitics.com.  The article is “Knott’s Folly” by Peter Haworth, the site’s editor-in-chief who is associated with something called the Ciceronian Society Foundation.  I’ve never heard of CSF, but anything modeled after Cicero can’t be all bad.

Haworth’s article is long, and I won’t characterize it beyond this short excerpt to convey the flavor of it:

When perusing Knott’s essay, readers should be prepared to encounter an implicit zeal for returning to the good ol’ days when we lived under a British monarch and, hence, had the king’s benevolent protection via his unenumerated, plenary powers over war and peace (sarcasm intended).

I’m glad Haworth included the sarcasm alert, or I might have missed it.  Anyway, this is not the first such critique of Steve; Greg Weiner also took after Steve at the LibertyLaw site.  Steve can (and I am sure will) defend himself perfectly well.

Rather, I think it worth a moment to welcome NomocracyinPolitics to the domain of serious conservative blogs.  It describes itself in the subtitle as “a new web magazine dedicated to exploring Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law.”  I’m for all those things, especially imperfection and prudence.  Also law.  The format is very fetching, and it has a roster of worthy contributors, including an editor whom I think is a very distant cousin of mine, and among its contributors the estimable Michael Schwarz of Ashland University.  It looks like it will be a strong competitor to the LibertyLaw site.

It appears, however, to align itself somewhat with what is often called the “paleocon” establishment, with one striking qualification that comes to sight from the very name of the blog itself: Nomocracy.  This harkens back to the classical distinction, usually learned on Day One of political philosophy class, between nomos (the positive law, roughly speaking) and physis (the natural law, roughly speaking).  In casting their lot with nomos, NomocracyinPolitics is casting its lot with positivism—in fact they openly admit this in their editorial statement:

[W]e are guided by Oakeshott’s insight, which has also been incorporated by American thinkers such as M.E. Bradford and George W. Carey, that nomocracy (a polity ordered primarily by the rule of law and NOT one constitutionally committed to apriori ideals and normative ends) should be the guiding criteria for evaluating political order. . .

This obviously rejects the idea of nature as a standard for political judgment or principle, let alone political practice.  And this, I submit, departs very substantially from Russell Kirk and other traditionalist conservative often described as “paleocons,” who, following Burke, were rightly suspicious of appeals to abstract justice, but who didn’t wholly abandon nature–especially human nature–as a ground of judgment.  And besides: no self-respecting conservatives should ever use the word “normative” except to make fun of the value-free social scientists who throw it around in every other sentence.

The problem deepens with this paragraph:

In other words, such awareness of imperfection (i.e., a tragic vision of politics) makes one better equipped to rely upon Prudence, as opposed to a criteria of idealistic ideals, to guide and resolve the ordering of human affairs. Prudence includes one’s capacity for practical reasoning, but it also can become highly improved and refined via the course of human experience.

It really is remarkable at how much one can agree with almost every word in this paragraph, as well as its broader and salutary intent, and yet find the operative understanding as it has already appeared on the site to be very problematic (such as the sophisticated defenses of southern secession, etc).  This requires a long discussion, and I have class in five minutes.  So I’ll leave this question for the Power Line classroom: Can there not be a vital connection between nature and prudence?  And might that connection also provide a supple ground of judgment about the arguments over executive power in wartime?  Paging John Locke and Chapter XIV of the Second Treatise! (The answer to both questions is Yes.  More later perhaps.  I’m running about 10 posts behind this week, and it’s only Monday.)

Just to be clear: I like these guys.  But I think there’s some serious arguments to be had here.

Recommend this Power Line article to your Facebook friends.

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