Tuesday, May 20, 2008


"Call this a guvment! A man can't get his rights in a guvment like this. Sometimes I've a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all."

--Pap Finn

Much umbrage has been taken in certain quarters, and there is a widespread belief among many, at the suggestion that Guvment should be charged with pursuing certain ends by coercive means (including taxation, incentives and legislation). In the view of many, such coercion represents a limitation on our freedom - particularly our freedom of consumption or liberty of bodies - and should be discouraged so that we can allow the flourishing of the free market and the free choice of individuals.

This argument (notwithstanding all of its simplifications here) is specious. The Guvment is constantly intervening in our market system, helping certain outcomes and hindering others. We may disagree with particular ways it intervenes, but only the most optimistic libertarian "spontaneous order" fundamentalist believes that a political, economic and social order can exist without government (and yes, I have met a few of those).

A good deal of the current order is the result of the partnership of large scale industrial enterprises and Guvment. Many policies favor companies that engage in economies of scale of national and international scope. The U.S. system has had a long tradition, one that spans party lines, of supporting what Lincoln and others called "internal improvements" - canals, railroads, roads, airports, as well as telegraph, telephone, internet, etc. - to expand commerce among and between the States as well as internationally. The growth of Guvment and the scale of the economy increased together, constantly in tandem. It could be argued that this is simultaneously the logic of market capitalism that requires a strong state (of course, a liberal state) in order to expand with firm expectations of stability and enforcement of laws and contracts, and it is the logic of the Constitutional order (modified and interpreted increasingly so along the way), which was designed in significant part to support this economic logic (as Antifederalists saw on their first reading).

We have seen recently that the Guvment is an essential partner in the operation of a "free" market - the Fed's intervention and support for the financial system (not only banks, but now investment firms) was only the most visible way that we have seen what is otherwise the constant presence of Guvment in our markets. Another good example is that of the Bush administration's significant regulatory activity in striking down various State regulations in areas such as auto emissions, environmental impact, and food safety, with the aim of creating uniform regulation in these and other areas across the nation for the sake of convenience and efficiency of industry. This from a party that has, for over half a century, rhetorically defended Federalism, localism, and the use of the States as "laboratories." Both parties defend greater centralization and homogenization when it suits the particular ox they don't wish to be gored.

The guvment puts more than a finger on our economic scale - without its constant intervention through regulation, legislation and enforcement, we would not have the system that we call "the free market." It is specious even to suggest that within the legislative and regulatory boundaries there is a great deal of economic freedom, since the very type of economic activity that will occur will be significantly defined by those bounds. Without the legal definition of a corporation as a "person," our economic activity would be very different. The growth of corporations has in turn resulted in extraordinary influence over our guvment. In important respects, the two are now so deeply intertwined that it's difficult to think of either of them as separate from one another. We see this in the fields of finance, agriculture, defense, retailing, etc. - a significant public policy preference for economies of scale (recall, it was official government policy when Earl Butz told farmers, "Get Big or Get Out.") and against more stable local forms of local economic activity. The larger point is that guvment is always involved in the economy, influencing its direction and activities in one way or another. The fundamental debate is not whether it should do so, but how and to what end.

What is important, then, is not whether guvment is involved - it is finally to what end. And our current end is growth and expansion of the modern project of the human mastery of nature. When we debate over guvment involvement in the market, we obscure the nature of the debate - whether this is the appropriate or sole goal of a society. I would submit that it is a deeply flawed goal - sharing the view of Aristotle that a proper economy is cognizant of limits to moneymaking in the name of fundamental human goods of which prosperity is a part, but only a part. Those goods include healthy and stable communities which are both formed by culture and in which cultures are maintained and preserved; a sound culture that inculcates central human virtues and that is ably passed on from one generation to the next; a culture that makes and keeps good families; a culture that inculcates the very virtues that will be necessary for a good, humane, and moral economy (one that avoids the abuses that we have recently seen in our financial markets); a culture that strongly emphasizes a sense of gratitude and obligation between generations; a culture that encourages stewardship, conservation and fidelity; and perhaps above all, a culture that reins in and chastens our eternal temptation toward Promethean or sinful self-aggrandizement, that teaches and enforces limits, that calls to our mind our flaws, and that does not allow us to lose sight of our fundamental condition of being dependent upon one another. A further good is our ability to act in concert with one another to achieve and maintain such a culture and polity - citizenship as shared and mutual governance, which goes far beyond our current conception as citizenship as suffrage.

This general form of a polity is a legitimate end of guvment, but it is one that is now largely rejected in our own society in the name of individual liberation from such culture - on the Right, in the name of economic liberty and unlimited growth, and on the Left, in the name of personal autonomy. Because we are so often engaged in the discrete political battles of our day - and I wouldn't suggest that they don't matter, for they do - nevertheless, we easily lose sight of the deeper similarities between our two main Parties, parties that are both defenders of what John Stuart Mill indicated was actually one Party - the Party of Progress. In our current society there are few defenders of what he identified as the other Party, the Party of Tradition. Mill was a severe critic of this latter Party, inasmuch as it discouraged what he called "experiments in living" and the obstruction of our experience of ourselves as "progressive beings." The Party of Tradition, he suggested, held the view that humanity had a certain kind of nature and end, and thereby sought in various instances to limit or restrict activities that it viewed as contradictory to that nature and end. He was particularly scornful toward traditional religion that sought to restrain our acquiescence to our appetites: he viewed "Calvinism" - and any religion, including Roman Catholicism - which could not be included in the "Party of Progress" as pessimistic and restrictive, and therefore an entity in the modern polity that could not be tolerated.

Among my students, and more broadly in the culture at large, Mill is widely admired and embraced, whether by self-described people on the Left or Right alike. All are variously attracted to his stirring libertarian defense of the individual (they quickly become less enamored, the Left when I point out the logic of his assumptions that leads to a justification of imperialism, the Right when I point out his equally stirring defense of communism). In that initial positive reaction (e.g., not only do my colleagues on the Left adore Mill, but they readily purchase the Collected Writings of Mill from Liberty Fund press, by reputation a conservative organization which published Mill's works) one sees that we live in a time largely defined by one party. That is, we are not truly capable as a society of debating over legitimate ends, because very few of us are even able to articulate any alternatives.

Until we are able to begin to articulate, even see as possible, some of these alternatives, we can barely begin to think of actual distinctions in policy. Many if not most policy debates today take place within the context of a broad and general agreement that economic growth is the ultimate end of policy. If we began to bring in other human goods that could be considered legitimate - ones that might at times lead to less economic growth - it would be possible to debate some actual policy alternatives. It would be possible to consider policies that would encourage and defend local economic and communal forms of life, rather than what occurs in our current political arrangement, which is almost always to their detriment. Nor is it simply a matter of arguing that we can achieve more robust local forms by reducing the size of Guvment (particularly Federal government). While I would dearly love for this to happen in some nearly unimaginable future, in the meantime one of the main challenges for such local forms are the immense concentrations of power among private entities, corporations in particular. Government had much to do with their ascent; it will have to be involved in their restraint. Policies should be conceived - with all due awareness of unintended consequences - that will strengthen local communities. Such policies would not, and should not, be heavy-handed - much can be achieved through incentives, tax policy, and regulation of just the sort that now advantages large actors with little or no loyalty to specific places. It's not a matter of government illegitimately engaging in influencing the "free" market - it already does that, giving lie to the notion that there is anything actually called the "free market" - but of seeking a different end. It's time to put aside the canard that such intervention would represent a fundamental shift in the relationship of government and economics. Hogwash.

There is a legitimate debate to be had. It cannot be had in our current state of ignorance, however, because we are largely incapable of considering whether "liberty" as we currently define it (largely the absence of restraint) is even debatable. We have resources, however, even within our own tradition - broadly in the West, including Aristotle and Aquinas, Burke and Chesterton, and in America, including the Antifederalists, Hawthorne and Melville, Orestes Brownson, Henry Adams, Jonathan Edwards, Santayana and Royce, the Southern Agrarians, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre and Wendell Berry, among others, who help us see that there are alternatives that we currently do not consider (in spite of our vapid self-congratulation about our "diversity"). Such authors allow us to see that what is at issue is not "guvment" vs. our liberty, but a different conception of liberty altogether - one in which, ultimately, we govern ourselves by governing our appetites, and in so doing become ourselves a government, a democracy of citizens (not "consumers") enacting laws that we impose upon ourselves with an appropriate and chastened acceptance of limits and humility.


Robert said...

"It is the mark of our whole modern history that the masses are kept quiet with a fight. They are kept quiet by the fight because it is a sham-fight; thus most of us know by this time that the Party System has been popular only in the sense that a football match is popular." - Chesterton, A Short History of England. 156

Peter Y. Paik said...

It seems that the underlying question here has to do with the distinction between internal and external authority. The largely unreflective, highly individualistic conception of freedom is ultimately a denial of the need for an internal authority, or what in Plato's Republic is called a pattern laid up in heaven. Our postmodern consumerist culture is premised upon making such an internal authority superfluous. Both the left and the right are guilty of what Vico assails as Epicureanism: the desire to make man the measure.

But it is in conditions of hardship and suffering that an internal authority - and the traditional virtues - become recognized as useful, and in one's "best interest" to cultivate. Bruno Bettelheim noted that the personalities psychoanalysis would deem unhealthy, repressive, and authoritarian were often the ones who were best capable of enduring the ordeals in concentration camps while maintaining ties to other human beings, i.e. without breaking down or succumbing to the selfish desire to survive. James Howard Kunstler, in a recent interview about his latest novel, talks about how the people who are the most secular and most accepting of high-tech consumerism will be the most shattered and crestfallen under conditions of scarcity.

As Christopher Lasch pointed out, "liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism." It's clear that it's past time to renew this source of capital, but it's an open question as to whether a society based on the limitless individual rights (to wealth, to idiosyncratic personal experimentation) will be capable of doing so, or whether there will be some kind of recourse to authoritarianism to make up for the deficiencies of individual self-control. Already a society based on infinite desire is one that threatens to unleash terrible hatreds, given that everybody's desires cannot be fulfilled equally.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Deneen,

Is there anything that need be said about libertarians that was not already said by Norman Cohn in the chapters on "The Brethren of the Free Spirit" in his Pursuit of the Millennium?

Antinomianism is with us always.