A spectre is haunting the liberal elite—the spectre of conservatism.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Huge government debt and financial instability were supposed to be problems confined to South American dictatorships. Idleness was a problem of unregulated capitalism, the bad old days when employers exploited the reserve army of the unemployed. Ineffective government was supposed to have died out with the end of royal sinecures or at least with the reform of the patronage system. But now every developed country is bending under the weight of huge government spending and debt. European levels of unemployment have come to America, and trend spotters warn that high unemployment will continue for years after the recession of 2008-2009. Governments at every level are failing to deliver social services competently and efficiently. Something has gone wrong with the modern state.
The core functions of government are rather simple. Norman Tebbit, minister in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, put it succinctly. A state must have territory and a people. It must defend its territory from aggressors foreign and domestic, a currency, and a legal system to foster agriculture, industry, and trade. Modern governments do most of that rather well, because they involve tasks that require only bureaucratic routine. You can write a law to fix a problem in one of these areas and expect it to work for decades.
But people do not go into politics to watch the grass grow; they go into politics because they are interested in power. “Men like power and will seize it if they can.”1 But a man that seizes power needs to know what potential adversaries are doing. When his personal fiefdom develops into a state, he desires to make the society in his state “legible.” He wants to know where the people are and what they own so he can tax them, conscript them, and control them. He also wants to “simplify” his subject territory so that it is simple enough to control. That is why governments like freehold land rather than communal ownership, cities with rectangular street grids, peasants corralled into model villages, and children educated in centralized school systems.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Thus governments are always tempted to control everything by converting everything to a standard grid, a rational plan simple enough to be controlled from above. They venture into areas for which political power is not suited, areas requiring adaptability, flexibility, creativity, and concern for people as individual persons and intimate groups rather than statistical aggregates. Of course the greatest 20th century efforts to rationalize and simplify ended in terror and famine in the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. But we are also talking about retirement finance, health care, education, and the relief of the poor. Modern governments have failed miserably in all these areas and their failures have placed their core functions at risk.
But if the modern state is failing, what shall we do? Today the centralized administrative state has taken over much of our lives. We just expect the government to school our children, and we know that we could never afford to pay for private school on our own. We never knew a time when government didn’t run a universal pension scheme, and who would trust Wall Street for their retirement security rather than government? We never knew a time when government didn’t run the health care system, and we know that a single expensive illness could us wipe out financially. We cannot imagine paying for health care without huge government subsidies.
It was not always thus. The notion that government could, and indeed should direct the minute details of peoples’ education, health care, and pensions is relatively new. It all began in the second half of the 19th century when various movements led by the educated sons of the rising middle class looked at the work of their fathers, the creative spirits of the Industrial Revolution, and saw not creation, but only destruction.
The inflection point occurred in the 1840s, a turbulent decade that featured financial crises, harvest failures, railway mania, the emergence of the industrial working class onto the political stage, and ended in the failed revolutions of 1848.
In the aftermath of 1848, everyone turned to politics. Old reactionaries were glad to slip a curb into the mouths of the new textile and railway magnates. Educated elites were anxious to form the minds of the illiterate masses with formal schooling. Middle-class thinkers were anxious to smooth the rough edges of the new individualism with new forms of community. Workers wanted a share of the franchise and a seat at the table of power. “Educated youth” was determined to reverse the results of 1848 with a coalition between workers and students. All these agendas contained worthy aims; indeed they often reached towards the highest and noblest ideals. But there was a problem. Limited in imagination, these various activists could not conjure up in their minds any method to advance their social goals except through government. Whatever the social problem they had identified, they usually decided that the answer to the problem was a government program — and more political power for people like them.
The reactionary Prussian landowner Otto von Bismarck reckoned to boost the power of the Hohenzollern dynasty by enacting the social insurance agenda of the Social Democratic Party. The Progressives in the United States wanted rational bureaucracy to tame the business monopolies and the big-city political machines that seemed to marginalize educated people like them. The Fabians in Britain agitated for the National Insurance Act of 1911 that nationalized the social insurance programs of the friendly societies and benefit clubs. Then came World War I and an unprecedented mobilization of economic resources into war supply. After the war it seemed only logical for governments to convert to peacetime uses the new economic powers they had seized in the war emergency. Every problem was now a problem for government, which now looked to benefit the working class rather than the landowners or the bourgeoisie as of old. Government grew in Britain from 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1900 to 45 percent in 2010. In the United States government grew from seven percent of GDP in 1900 to 41 percent in 2010.
In its pure form political power is the power of the war leader. He calls his nation to arms to repel the invaders. All resources in the nation are marshaled into the supply of the army. Credits are approved in the legislature; taxes are raised; money is printed, bonds are sold. Afterward, after the crisis and the glorious victory, it is time for retrenchment, for a resumption of payments, a funding of the debt, and a return to normal commercial relations. This was the policy of the British government after the supreme effort of the Napoleonic Wars when the National Debt reached 250 percent of Gross Domestic Product. This was the policy of the United States after its Revolutionary War and its Civil War.
This old policy no longer holds, and for a simple reason. In the old days governments only attempted to seize the commanding heights of the economy during war time. No longer. Today governments, encouraged by political philosophies from Marxism to William James’s “Moral Equivalent of War,” have commandeered the fruits of the economy in both war and peace. Today, government is the chief guarantor of pensions for the aged. It is the principal in the organization of health care. It is the educator of children and the reliever of the poor. These great social responsibilities thus no longer engage the attention of the people but of the rulers. And the rulers do this work very badly.
Since the turmoil of the mid 19th century much has changed. For a start, the contenders for political power have changed. The reactionary landowners have died off. The workers have risen into the middle class. Well-born women have assumed power in the public square and marginalized groups have entered the political arena. Most of all, the rising educated class of the 19th century is now the Ruling Class of the 21st century, and like ruling classes everywhere, it cannot see what everyone else can see. Its moral vision has become a corrupting orthodoxy, its urgent faith established into a dull and plodding national secular church complete with all the vices of preferment, indulgences, simony, sinecure, and self-dealing that prevailed in the ancien régime. Its administrative bureaucracies have withered the culture of engagement that can elevate a society above the sordid fight over the spoils of political victory. The only thing the modern era lacks is a literary and artistic movement to satirize its hypocrisies and its pomposities.
Nobody feels the crisis of the administrative state more than the thinking Marxist. The Marxian system, with its promise of liberation and equality, was going to neutralize the alienation of capitalism and the subjection of everything to the cash nexus and the pursuit of efficiency. Yet by the 1940s two Germans fugitive from Nazi Germany, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, wrote a critique of the “instrumental reason” that they blamed for World War II and Nazism. It wasn’t just capitalism, these Marxists argued, it was instrumental reason and Enlightenment itself that led to the horror. Pure instrumental reason, Horkheimer and Adorno wrote, is pure domination. All rational bourgeois action ends up as bourgeois domination, and this is already encoded in the very idea of Enlightenment. “What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men.”2 When a businessman searches for practical knowledge about the natural world and applies it in his business he is not living Aristotle’s bios theoretikos, living a life of contemplation in the comfortable knowledge that such a life is “dear to the gods.” He is working to harness nature to his will and convert his knowledge of nature into power and profit. And so “Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men.”3 What then is the administrative welfare state with its rational plans and its bureaucratic programs?
That was the problem that Jürgen Habermas, student of Theodor Adorno, tried to solve. He argued that the Enlightenment did not just invent “instrumental reason” but also a democratic culture of dialog and conversation that could mitigate its system of domination. The pre-modern political culture, he argued, was a “representational” culture where the representative, e.g., the monarch, sought to represent society by imposing himself on his subordinate audience. But in the 18th century the rising bourgeoisie and capitalist development created an Öffentlichkeit culture or “public sphere” to challenge the kingly representative. Habermas argued that the growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and coffeehouses in 18th century Europe all helped to replace the top-down “representational” culture with a democratic and egalitarian culture of rational discussion that through its discourse rendered a consensus of “public opinion.” But the growth of commercial mass media and the welfare state have tended to crowd out the public sphere, as the merging of society and state have turned the rational dialog of the public sphere into a street fight for government benefits and subsidies. Thus Habermas proposes a culture of discourse that replaces systems of instrumental reason with lifeworlds of communicative discourse.
Nothing concentrates the mind so much as power in the hands of other people. The Marxians needed the power of fascism in their faces before they began to question the dictatorship of the proletariat. Perhaps today’s ruling elite will need the political power of a gun-toting lower middle class in their faces before it will agree to the reform of the administrative welfare state over which they preside. Only then will partisans agree upon the evil of concentrated power, whether economic or political, before that power, in the hands of the wrong people, devours them all.
On the other hand, instrumental reason is also the power to do good. Humans have created wealth enough in the last 200 years by the power of instrumental reason to raise the per-capita consumption of goods and services from $1 or $3 to $100 or more in the developed countries.4 Humans are social animals; they love to cooperate and do things together. Adam Smith famously asserted that humans usually have to do good to do well. “By pursuing his own interest [the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”5 Most humans can only get what they want by working for others; they must serve others if they wish to benefit themselves. The question is: did the astonishing growth in wealth of the last two centuries arise from the power of instrumental reason or in spite of it? Did it issue from the synchronicities of social cooperation or from the subordination of workers to the capitalist vision of their employers? Did it all arise from the power of beneficial social legislation that tamed the power of the capitalists or in spite of it? Or did it arise from a mysterious balance between power and cooperation?
Horkheimer and Adorno, in their wartime despair, seemed to think that the Pandora’s Box of instrumental reason had emptied itself even of hope. Power was everything, and there was no way for sociable humans to defend against it. But if the modern era is a story of the ruthless advance of instrumental reason, it is also a story of monumental failures of rational force. The crisis of the authoritarian welfare state in the early 21st century seems to those living through it as unique and unprecedented. But it is the fourth failure of force in modern times. It represents merely the failure of the political project of the educated class, yet another attempt to rule the world by the force of reason—in this case the relatively benign force of elected politicians, educated experts and bureaucratic programs.
The failure immediately prior to the bankruptcy of the welfare state was the collapse of communism, the instantiation of Marx’s scientific socialism as state capitalism run by an elite of privileged nomenclatura. It was brought to collapse in part by the internal contradictions of a program of force that was advertised as the acme of liberation, but also by a moral movement that opposed the communist program as a moral outrage. We are talking about the moral movement headed in its apogee by a pope, a prime minister, and a president: Karol Wojtyla, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. The problem for communism was that its program of instrumental reason required the subjugation of the entire population to the economic demands of the Plan, in other words reverting to serfdom, the very thing that the modern era was supposed to eliminate. The only way it could be made to work at all was by concentrating all power, political, economic, and cultural, in a single political and administrative elite.
Immediately before the collapse of communism, the world had combined in a military alliance to defeat fascism. For a variety of reasons, fascism has ended up buried in an unmarked grave, deprived of intellectual mourners, so it is salutary to remember that the German National Socialist German Workers Party was a conscious effort to combine all the competing anti-capitalist movements of the 1920s into a single political force. It was nationalist, socialist, German, and for workers. But in the end it all came down to force. Germany would force itself to the world hegemony it deserved, and preside over the planet as humans over the apes.
A similar defeat was handed out to capitalism a century earlier. It was not what you think: the taming of a reckless 19th century capitalism by the intellectuals, workers and students of legend. It was the elimination of plantation slavery by the anti-slavery movement.
It is tempting to think of plantation slavery as a shameful survival of ancient exploitation into the modern era from the age of agriculture. It was not. Plantation slavery was modern and capitalist, and had been since it was invented by Venetian entrepreneurs on Cyprus in the years after the Crusades and then expanded west to the Canaries and Madeiras in the Atlantic Ocean and thence to the Americas.
Things were going swimmingly for plantation slavery by the middle of the 18th century. About 30 percent of world trade involved slave-produced products, and successful planters built vast mansions on the profits of slave-grown sugar and cotton. But in the mid-18th century a moral movement rose in the United States and England to oppose slavery and, after the decisive battle had been fought a century later in the United States in the 1860s, plantation slavery was thrown on the ash-heap of history until it celebrated a temporary reprise in the collective farms of communist Russia and China.
When, under 19th century capitalism, the workers suffered under the regimentation of the new textile factories and the risks of the coal mines, another moral movement arose to oppose it. And when the Indian National movement in India rose against the British Empire and African Americans against the injustices of Jim Crow in the American South, their stand against force found a response in the hearts of all those that loved freedom and justice. There seemed to be an instinct in the human heart that rebelled against excessive force.
Why should this be surprising? Humans are social animals, according to the biologists, and the whole point of social behavior is to minimize violence among “us” in our social group and encourage cooperation. Violent means are appropriate only for “them:” other groups, other animals, other living things. Presumably the reduction in force among “us” creates the necessary space for cooperation and delivers better survival to “our” group.
It is not just moral movements that have reacted to the problems of force and exploitation in modern society. Modern armed forces, that began with the regimental system and Prussian drill and discipline, have abandoned the culture of drill and obedience, and evolved to train their subordinate officers and enlisted men, down to the lowest ranks, to use judgment and delegate responsibility. Modern business enterprise also delegates responsibility downwards, even in the largest organizations. Even the old slave planters found that better profits were obtained by treating their slaves as humans rather than machines.
Let us return to the present and ask: What went wrong with the welfare state? The answer is obvious. Its ruling class misunderstood the dual lesson of the modern era that the force of instrumental reason is just a tool; it can only be beneficial when floated in an ocean of cooperation and sociability. Thus the authoritarian welfare state rowed against the tide of history and developed a culture of force instead of persuasion and cooperation, centralization and mechanical rule-following instead of trust and responsibility. Decisions are not delegated downwards, nor is flexibility encouraged. If we understand the authoritarian welfare state as too rigid and mechanical, relying on force where moral movements have suggested persuasion and the invisible hand has suggested cooperation, then we can easily see what went wrong. The authors and the legatees of the social welfare state forgot that humans are social animals, not mechanical gadgets.
The time has come to return government to the tasks it does best: respond to national crisis and operate the routine machinery of state: law, police, and currency. All work of a creative nature, that demands adaptability and flexibility, and all work of a sensitive nature, that demands attention to the needs of particular individuals, must be returned to the people where it belongs.
A new moral movement now hears the call to reform the corruption, the injustice, and the sheer incompetence of the modern administrative state. It all begins with the simple words of British Prime Minister David Cameron. “There is such a thing as society. It’s just not the same thing as the state.” He might have said: the trouble with socialism is that it is not social; it is regimental. It pretends to call people to be social, to enlarge their sympathies beyond the instinctive community of family and class to the wide world, but in practice it regiments them into the civil battalions of the administrative state, subordinate to the will of government officers, and does not even offer, as the regimental system of the armies of Europe once did, the esprit de corps of a band of brothers.
Humans are social animals called to cooperate for the common good in ordinary times and sacrifice during times of crisis. They are not born to be mechanical cogs in a government machine or serfs on a liberal plantation. How is it that human social animals got to be regimented into the nursery of a nanny state? The answer lies with the secular religions that rushed to fill the hole in the human soul left by the death of God. They sought to build a world of peace and justice; but all they could not imagine a way to do it without government.
And government is not social; it is not cooperative. Government is force.
1Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, Penguin Press, 2009, p.46.
2Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Continuum 1990, p. 4.
3Ibid., p. 9.
4Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity, Chicago, p. 1.
5Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX.
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?
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
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
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
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
[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
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
In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel
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
What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph
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
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
There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion
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