June 8, 2014



The emasculated society of Europe serves, then, as a warning to conservatives, and reinforces their belief that America must reverse the trend of modern politics, which has involved the increasing assumption by the state of powers and responsibilities that belong to civil society. Such has been the call of the Tea Party movement, and it is this same call that animated the Republican caucus in Congress as it prolonged the fight against Obamacare, to the point where, by jeopardizing the fiscal probity of the nation, it antagonized the American people. It is therefore pertinent to consider not only the bad side of government--which Americans can easily recognize--but also the good. For American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all, and were in the business simply of opposing all new federal programs, however necessary they may be to the future and security of the nation. Most of all, they seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment.

The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows. We have rights that shield us from those who are appointed to rule us--many of them ancient common-law rights, like that defined by habeas corpus. But those rights are real personal possessions only because government is there to enforce them--and if necessary to enforce them against itself. Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own--namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the "little platoons" extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

Rousseau told us that we are "born free," arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the '60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

We are not, in the state of nature, free; still less are we individuals, endowed with rights and duties, and able to take charge of our lives. We are free by nature because we can become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world. Only certain kinds of social networks encourage people to see themselves as individuals, shielded by their rights and bound together by their duties. Only in certain conditions are people united in society not by organic necessity but by free consent. To put it simply, the human individual is a social construct. And the emergence of the individual in the course of history is part of what distinguishes our civilization from so many of the other social ventures of mankind.

Hence we individuals, who have a deep and in many particular cases justified suspicion of government, have a yet deeper need for it. Government is wrapped into the very fibers of our social being. We emerge as individuals because our social life is shaped that way. When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a "calling to account," and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable. If this relation of accountability fails to emerge, then what might have been friendship becomes, instead, a form of exploitation.

Our world displays many political systems in which the basic relation of accountability has either not emerged or been distorted in the interests of family, party, ideology, or tribe. If there is a lesson to be learned from the so-called Arab Spring it is surely this: that the governments then overthrown were not accountable to the people on whom they depended for their resources. The Middle Eastern tyrannies have left a void in their wake, since there were no offices, no legal procedures, no customs or traditions that enshrined the crucial relation of accountability on which the true art of government depends--the art of government as we individuals understand it. In the Arab tyrannies there was only power, exercised through family, tribe, and confession, and without regard to the individual citizen or to the nation as a whole. In such a form of government there was no possibility of enduring civic friendship.

In everyday life, too, there are people who relate to others without making themselves accountable. Such people are locked into the game of domination. If they are building a relationship, it is not a free relationship. A free relationship is one that grants rights and duties to either party, and which raises their conduct to the higher level in which mere power gives way to a true mutuality of interests. That is what is implied by the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative, which commands us to treat rational beings as ends and not as means only--in other words, to base all our relations on the web of rights and duties. Such free relations are not just forms of affection: They are forms of obedience, in which the other person has a right to be heard. This, as I read him, is Kant's message: Sovereign individuals are also obedient subjects, who face each other "I" to "I."

There are other ways of expressing those truths about our condition. But we see them illustrated throughout human life: in the family, the team, the community, the school, and the workplace. People become free individuals by learning to take responsibility for their actions. And they do this through relating to others, subject to subject. The free individuals to whom the founders appealed were free only because they had grown through the bonds of society, to the point of taking full responsibility for their actions and granting to each other the rights and privileges that established a kind of moral equality between them.

In other words, in our tradition, government and freedom have a single source, which is the human disposition to hold each other to account for what we do. No free society can come into being without the exercise of this disposition, and the freedom that Americans rightly cherish in their heritage is simply the other side of the American habit of recognizing their accountability toward others. Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbors to address it, while Europeans sit around helplessly until the servants of the state arrive. That is the kind of thing we have in mind when we describe this country as the "land of the free." We don't mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government--the kind that springs up spon­taneously between individuals who feel accountable to each other.

Such a government is not imposed from outside: It grows from within the community as an expression of the affections and interests that unite it. It does not necessarily put every matter to the vote; but it respects the individual participant and acknowledges that, in the last analysis, the authority of the leader derives from the people's consent to be led by him. Thus it was that the pioneering communities of this country very quickly made laws for themselves, formed clubs, schools, rescue squads, and committees in order to deal with the needs that they could not address alone, but for which they depended on the cooperation of their neighbors. The associative habit that so impressed Tocqueville was not merely an expression of freedom: It was an instinctive move toward government, in which a shared order would contain and amplify the responsibilities of the citizens.

When conservatives grumble against government it is against government that seems to them to be imposed from outside, like the government of an occupying power. That was the kind of government that grew in Europe under communism, and which is growing again under the European Union--softer, gentler, perhaps, but also unaccountable. And it is easy to think that a similarly alien form of government is growing in America, as a result of the liberal policy of regimenting the American people according to moral beliefs that are to a certain measure alien, leading them to denounce government tout court. But this would be a mistake, not just about the fundamental human need for government, but also about the American situation as compared with Europe. And because it is a mistake that so many conservatives make, it is time to warn against it.

Posted by at June 8, 2014 8:06 AM

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