We do not live in the past, but the past in us. — U.B. Phillips1
The vision of a Greater Separation of Powers is the idea that the great centers of power in modern society ought to be kept separate, and forbidden to combine with each other to dominate the others. That is what Michael Novak argues in his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. There are three power sectors in modern society, political, economic, and moral/cultural, that have condensed out of the compact social order of pre-modern society. They are the basis of our freedom and our prosperity. But they are also dangerous and their powers need to be curbed. But how? The three powers need to be kept separate, just like the three branches of government, and prevented from combining to gang up on the other sector. Novak dug out the hidden goal towards which 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. The great systematic powers of the modern world, the powers that have emancipated us from rural idiocy, but have also enslaved us with their dominations, the three power sectors of politics, economy, and moral culture: they must be kept separate.
We do not mean by conservatism, as the critics charge, an unreflecting tradition that follows without thought the “way” of the ancestors. Nor do we countenance it as a cynical defense of the ruling class and its privilege. Conservatism, ever since Burke, has been a self-conscious culture of tradition, that is, a culture that recognizes that, whatever we know, whatever we have learned, we still see through a glass darkly, and not face to face. We do not know what in our traditions is essential and what is dispensable. Conservatives only want to balance tradition, the unconscious accumulation of social custom, the lifeworld of the taken-for-granted and the always already familiar, with an evolutionary process of consciously righting wrongs and adapting to changing times. Thus, a century before Freud “discovered” the unconscious, the First Conservative inaugurated a program that balanced conscious wisdom and unconscious “always already” instinct, founding human society upon the basis of the natural social bonds between man and man. 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 four great campaigns marked out for all of us already the program of modern conservatism. On America, he urged the folly of trying to rule that continent from Britain; on India, he championed the end of the ages-old warrior culture of imperial pillage and plunder with his ten year campaign to impeach Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal; 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. In homage to Burke 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 instinct for cooperation between people that directs them into socially beneficial actions even when they are merely 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 to 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 top-down supervision to prevent a chaos of economic free-for-all. 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 strand 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 continued in the 19th century 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. And that is to say nothing about the girl from rural Colorado, Thea Kronberg in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. Today, after the convulsions of 20th century totalitarianism, we have sadder, wiser leftists like Jürgen Habermas sidling towards 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 way in which ordinary people can live and cooperate in dignity, equality and freedom. And there is Charles Taylor, a liberal Canadian philosopher, who makes a liberal case for a society that refines 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 them the Young Hegelians developed the notion of the alienation of modern life and their rebellion thrives today in the expressionism, existentialism, and environmentalism of early 21st century culture.
The economic strand 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. Then 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. This, if anything, exploded the conceit of Marx that a market for labor represented an alienation of social labor. If by getting rid of capitalism you do not know what your labor is worth to others then how can you decide whether you are alienated or not? Finally 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 Stiltstocking knows only 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. You can see Weber’s theory confirmed in the life of Ayeen Hirsi Ali, a Somali girl born into the ageless culture of clan and tribe. From clan daughter in Somalia she became against all odds an educated individual in Holland and an activist for women’s rights as individuals. 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. In the 21st century we have George Gilder reformulating the workings of capitalism in terms of the communications theory of Claude Shannon, that each economic innovation is an incident of surprise in a sea of noise.
The political strand 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 project force to fight enemies, foreign and domestic, yet not so much power that it can oppress its legitimate opponents? Yet its majority politics is critiqued by modern public choice theory. James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock showed in The Calculus of Consent that the only just basis of legislation is unanimous consent, for it forces the majority to pay the costs of the minority in order to get its support. The control of government power requires constant vigilance, and the 20th century ruling class betrayed the vision of the founders with the notion of a “living constitution,” a construction that broadly licensed the ruling class, through its control of the judiciary and the culture, to amend the constitution without ratification by the people.
But now comes the task to combine the three strands into an integrated social philosophy, and that is where Michael Novak comes in. He extended the separation of powers doctrine from Montesquieu’s rule about government to a philosophy about society as a whole, thus binding together the three strands of modern conservatism into a single rope. 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, specified 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. Thus politics, economy, and culture are free to develop within their own sectors without subjection to the domination of a totalitarian combination of powers.
In Status Anxiety Alain de Botton rehearses the great moral stories that have been told about status, about rich and poor. Do the rich deserve to be rich, or are they crooks? Are the poor deservedly so, or are they held down by the evil rich? Let us rehearse here the stories about the government and the people that tell us the moral framework of modern conservatism.
Government is force and force destroys society; you must limit government if you desire to reduce force and exploitation.
How do you limit force so that people are “forced” to solve their problems without force? You limit government with the political conservatism of Montesquieu and the founders. You hive government away from a corrupt condominium with the economic sector and the temptations of crony capitalism; you keep government away from leaking into the moral-cultural sector following the temptation of an established religion.
Politics is division and turns people against each other; you must limit political power if you want people to stop fighting each other and start cooperating.
Cultural conservatism teaches that it is religion and culture that teach cooperation and mutual assistance. Modern totalitarian secular religions, on the contrary, start with a declaration of irreconcilable differences that can only be resolved by force. Marxism must start with the notion that the workers are exploited and that nothing short of political revolution can fix it. Modern progressivism must start with the notion that certain groups are permanently marginalized and that they must fight the rest of society to get their rights. Unfortunately, their tactics confirm their faith in force. If you mobilize to fight a holy war against the bosses, chances are the bosses will organize to fight right back; if you organize the marginalized to fight for their rights against the racists, sexists and homophobes, you force racists, sexists, and homophobes to push back. Modern secular religions are willing a collapse of the separation between the sector of force and the sector of meaning creates a totalitarianism that enforces meaning with government coercion. Cultural conservatism teaches people to think first about what they can contribute to society and do something about it before they ask what society owes them.
System is domination and sets the powerful over the powerless; you must limit system to give the powerless a defense against power.
The authoritarian delusion implemented in the welfare state is that ordinary people just don’t have the information, the knowledge to manage their own health care, to educate their own children, to buy safe and reliable products. Economic conservatism shows that they are wrong. The unconscious organism of the price “system” automatically selects desirable health plans that most people like; it automatically prefers schools that most people want to send their children to; it penalizes producers that sell defective products. This does not require that each individual possesses encyclopedic information about all options; it merely demonstrates that the collective impact of millions of individual decisions based on partial knowledge adds up to a wealth of knowledge that the policy analyst in Washington DC can never approach.
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 bonds of tribal loyalty are sundered 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 that benefits 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 political scramble for entitlement loot, and in that act of renunciation 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.
Humanity's Big Problem: 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.
The Paradox of Individualism
Is individualism the gospel of selfishness or something else?
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.
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
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
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
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
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
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
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
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital