We do not live in the past, but the past in us. — U.B. Phillips1
It is precisely the Greater Separation of Powers that modern conservatism has been struggling towards since its emergence in the late 18th century in the revolt of Edmund Burke against the French Revolution and its rule of Reason. We do not mean by conservatism, as the critics charge, an unreflecting culture of tradition. Conservatism, ever since Burke, has been a self-conscious culture of tradition. Conservatives want to balance tradition, the unconscious accumulation of social custom, with an evolutionary process of consciously righting wrongs and adapting to changing times. A century before Freud “discovered” the unconscious, the First Conservative inaugurated a program that balanced conscious wisdom and unconscious instinct. And conservatives also experience themselves in a partnership between the past and the future: “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”2
In a profound way, Edmund Burke’s great campaigns marked out the program of conservatism. On America, he urged the folly of trying to rule that continent from Britain; on India, he championed the end of ages-old program of imperial pillage and plunder; on Ireland, he championed the emancipation of Catholics; on France, he drove the first stake in the ground against the hegemony of reason and system.
Let us take three strands of conservatism and illuminate each one. First of all there is cultural conservatism, which finds its founding statement in Burke’s declaration that we, the generation of the living, have a contract both with our dead ancestors and with generations yet unborn. Then there is so-called economic conservatism that begins with Adam Smith’s declaration of the Invisible Hand, that there is a natural cooperation between people that directs them into socially beneficial actions even when they are seeking their own self-interest. Then there is the political conservatism that begins with Montesquieu’s doctrine of the three branches of government and the separation of powers. To identify these three strands of conservatism is to express the irony of its name and its program: for it is not really conservative at all. While cultural conservatism is certainly conservative it accepts that the past not fixed for all time, but merely a challenge the living generation to honor its legacy and build a world that honors the sacrifices of the past. Economic conservatism is not really conservative all all, but a radical break with a past that took it for granted that all economic affairs required detailed political supervision to prevent a breakdown of economic relations. Instead it recognizes that economic actions begin with the radical uncertainty of divining and serving other peoples’ needs. And political conservatism is nothing if not radical in its faith in distributed power. It honors the natural aristocracy of talent and wisdom while deprecating the oligarchy of power.
The cultural strain begins with Burke and his jeremiad against the mechanical culture of the Age of Reason, its reduction of everything to Newtonian mechanics and “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” and it continues with people like George Eliot, who argued for the dignity of ordinary people, from Adam Bede to Maggie Tulliver to Mary Garth and to Mirah Lapidoth. Today, after the convulsions of totalitarianism, we have repentant leftists like Jürgen Habermas arguing for a mitigation of the power of system, the domination of reason, by balancing it with the intersubjectivity, the reciprocity of the communicative lifeworld. We have Berger and Neuhaus arguing for the dignity of authentic self-governing mediating structures between the individual and the mega-structures of big government and big corporations. We have Lawrence Cahoone and his Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics working out the details of people living in dignity, equality and freedom. And there is Charles Taylor, a liberal Canadian philosopher, who makes a liberal case for a society that digests the modern moral order of freedom, equality, dignity, and expressive creativity into a blend that balances ordinary flourishing with a yearning for a higher meaning. It is not just conservatives that have rebelled against the culture of the mechanical life. The Romantics rebelled famously against the sterility of reason. After the Romantics the Young Hegelians developed the notion of the alienation of modern life and their rebellion thrives today in the expressionism, existentialism, and environmentalism of the present culture.
The economic strain that begins with Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand was expanded with Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. Then in 1870 came the marginal revolution that resolved the apparent dichotomy between the idea of exchange value and intrinsic value. Finally, Mises demonstrated the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism: without a market you cannot have prices, and without prices you cannot know the cost of anything; and Hayek showed the impossibility of bureaucratic centralism: the man in Washington cannot hope to out-think the millions of consumers and producers. The idea that only a wise ruler can negotiate the conflicts of a people is shown to be impossible. People do better negotiating with each other than through a political middle-man from the government, a Barnacle or a Stiltstockingthat only knows how not to do it.
If Adam Smith invented the Invisible Hand, Max Weber extended it with the notion of work as a calling, the Protestant Ethic that informed the spirit of capitalism; then he found that the whole urban western tradition had developed a culture that dissolved the age-old loyalty to kindred and legitimized the possibility of trusting strangers. In the western city, he argued, Christianity taught people to live as individuals and to extend trust beyond the boundaries of kindred towards anyone that could be trusted. The community of neighborhood, church, association and nation replaced the community of the kindred. Then the Frankfurt School extended Heidegger’s concern about domination into a critique of instrumental reason that looked forward in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action to a move away from system and reason and towards conversation and negotiation of truth values as a basis of community.
The political strain that begins with Montesquieu’s idea of the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial was implemented with astonishing success by James Madison in the US Constitution. It remains unequaled in its approach to the political problem: how do you give government enough power to fight enemies, foreign and domestic, yet not too much power that it can oppress its legitimate opponents? In the 20th century Michael Novak extended the separation of powers doctrine from a rule about government to society as a whole. Differentiating society into three sectors, economic, political, and moral/cultural, he proposes what we have called here a Greater Separation of Powers. In this view the separation of church and state, adumbrated in the First Amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion, is extended to the notion of a separation of powers between each of the three sectors: not just separation of church and state — the separation of political and moral/cultural power — but separation of economic and political power and separation of economic and moral/cultural power.
A world illuminated by this triple conservative vision is one where people can live independent and free under institutions that will protect freedom while encouraging social cooperation and punishing freeloading. With cultural conservatism the mandates of tribal loyalty are repealed and people are socialized within moral/cultural associations such as churches and mutual-benefit associations. With economic conservatism people are freed from the cramped limitations of the family economy and economically socialized to work to benefit the stranger. In political conservatism people are socialized for and protected by a state with powers limited to the essential tasks for which force is required. Now all we need is the implementation.
And that starts, after the horror of Obama, with persuading the American people to abandon the welfare state’s Battle of the Benefits, the reduction of social life to a scramble for loot, and transform America from its current shame as a robber band of Takers into a land that is first of all a society of Makers.
1Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, quoted by Thomas Sowell in Conquests and Cultures, Basic Books, 1998, p.3.
2Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Collier, 1937, p. 232.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
From Freeloaders to Free Givers
The path to the future lies through moral movements.
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
Civil Societya complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churchesbuilds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust
Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up
rather than learns... Victor Hugo
César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is merely relative, is asking you not to believe him. So dont.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable...
[1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006
At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing
But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family.
Thus the outlook for communism, which is both anti-property and anti-family, (and also anti-religion), is not promising.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit
Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says we should....
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity
Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism