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 of South American dictatorships. Underemployment was a problem of unregulated capitalism, of 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 in the second decade of the 21st century every developed country is bending under the weight of huge government spending and debt. European levels of unemployment have come to America as labor force participation has declined in the aftermath of 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; it must have 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 and doing the things that only the powerful can do. After securing a territory from enemies foreign and domestic they look for new vistas to conquer, and venture into areas for which political power is not suited: activities requiring adaptability, flexibility, creativity, and concern for people as individual persons and intimate groups. Thus the modern government does not just secure peace for its citizens; it goes on to direct retirement finance, health care, education, and the relief of the poor. Unfortunately, governments go about these activities as they would a campaign of imperial conquest or of national defense. They mobilize the people against an existential threat: they declare war on poverty, on cancer, on ignorance, on inequality. They they vote credits and enlist recruits into a bureaucratic army of grant-awarders and regulators, and march forth to engage and defeat the enemy. 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, for 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 details of peoples’ education, health care, and pensions is relatively new. It all began in the second half of the 19th century when various political 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 destruction. They saw poverty, oppression, superstition in the ways of their fathers, and they were determined to fight for a better world. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about autodidact pampleteers or the pampered sons of businessmen, the reactionary Prussian landowner Otto von Bismarck or the Fabian intellectuals trying to curb the waste of individualism and the higgling of the market. All of them saw political power as the answer to the Social Question of the 19th century. Every problem was now a problem of politics and the solution was more government, which now looked to benefit the working class rather than the landowners or the bourgeoisie as of old. Government grew in Britain from 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1900 to 46 percent in 2010.1 In the United States government grew from 8 percent of GDP in 1900 to 40 percent in 2010.2 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.
The question that the crisis of the modern state presents is the oldest question of all: how shall humans flourish? To what extent can we social humans flourish through our instincts for cooperation, and to what extent must we supplement the velvet glove of cooperation with the mailed fist of force? And what about religion? For many people God has died, and yet the early 21st century is experiencing in radical Islam and in global Christianity a strong renewal of religious faith. In the United States, religious faith and government power are famously supposed to be separate. Yet most of the political movements of the 20th century are best understood as secular religions, militantly combining church and state in a holy war for a new heaven on earth.
If there are problems in the world — poverty, sickness, ignorance, inequality, oppression — what can government realistically do to mitigate them or solve them and, if government action has its limitations, what can other means achieve, such as religious faith and friendly cooperation? That is to say: knowing what we know about the nature of governments and politicians and their supporters, what should we expect from a government program to, e.g., fight poverty? Or is this the wrong question? We might ask instead what is left of a meaningful life for ordinary people when the government has appropriated the social space of education, health care, providing for the future, relieving the poor, and marked off that space as the playground of politicians and activists?
With the failure of the modern administrative state a space is created for a new philosophy of limited government. But how to found it, how to design and build it? Conservative and libertarian thinkers have traditionally argued for smaller government from the philosophies of the 17th century Glorious Revolution and the 18th century American Revolution. But for over a century these arguments have not persuaded the educated elite that now constitutes the ruling class in Europe and North America. Drawing on 19th century thought the modern educated elite has developed an apology for the rule of the educated and the expert, and rejects 17th and 18th century ideas as irrelevant and outmoded, when not utterly vitiated by the racism, sexism and classism of that era.
In the second decade of the 21st century, it is time to argue for a new birth of freedom from a new point of view. By remembering how the 19th century thinkers of the left experienced the Social Question as an indictment of the 18th century’s errors, we may perhaps gain traction by arguing that the failures of the 20th century administrative state arise out of the errors of 19th century thinking. Could it be that ideas of thinkers from the 20th century might point the way to a new birth of freedom? And might we conservatives even countenance ideas from sadder, wiser men of the left?
Assisted by 20th century ideas we shall argue in these pages that the problem with the modern state is that there is too much compulsion and too little cooperation, too many declarations of moral equivalents of war and not enough agreements to differ, too frequent collusion between religious and political power and between political and economic power and not enough separation of power. We shall argue that governments and politicians are the human means for defense against existential perils and sudden emergencies. But most of human life is working and discussing and exchanging and living and trying to divine the meaning of it all, for which we shall argue that government’s mailed fist is not the answer. We shall try to develop a social vision that balances the imperative for a defense against the dangers of the time with the need in every human to take up the responsibility, moral and practical, of freely and gladly contributing to the welfare and the flourishing of others in order to flourish for themselves.
Humans are social animals called to cooperate and exchange for the common good in ordinary times and called to sacrifice during times of crisis. They are not born to be serfs on a plantation or mechanical cogs in a government or corporate machine.
How is it that human social animals got to be regimented into the nursery of a nanny state? The answer is: the secular religions that rushed to fill the hole in the human soul left by the death of God. They did it. They determined to fight the economic and social injustices they saw, and knew that they had to seize the commanding heights of the culture and the government to do it. After winning the culture and replacing the ruling class, then they began to build a world of peace and justice here on earth. But in their cramped imaginations the prophets of heaven on earth could not conceive of a way to build their perfect society except with political rage and government force.
The utopian imagination cannot understand that government force is a blunt instrument good only for cowing your enemy into submission whereas the whole point of human society is to provide for human flourishing with a minimum of force. You can’t make a flower bloom by bashing it into submission with a spade.
It cannot be emphasized enough: government is not social; it is not cooperative; it is not adaptable; it is not inspirational. Government is force.
1Christopher Chantrill, ukpublicspending.co.uk, accessed 06-19-2014. http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/spending_chart_1900_2016UKp_F0t
2Christopher Chantrill, usgovernmentspending.com, accessed 06-19-2014. http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/spending_chart_1900_2016USp_F0t
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?
Liberals and the Welfare State
Liberals, the ruling class of the administrative welfare state.
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