Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The insufficiency of the General Will

Bored by the election, I have avoided the news and taken to reading more substantial works. In addition to a few other minor projects, I've also picked up Warren--and now Ann--Carroll's fifth volume in his History of Christendom, The Revolution Against Christendom. I quote therefrom:

Unerringly Burke put his finger on the central weakness of the French philosophy: that in its passion for logical abstraction it did not recognize religion and morality. It boldly assumed that these were identical with the General Will: the popular vote or other mechanical manifestation of democracy that in some mysterious way embodied the aggregate of human reason and virtue while discarding human folly and passion. The French reformers, who had disestablished their Church, thought that under a perfect constitution men would have no need for religion because the ideal State would automatically create the ideal man.

The same pathetic delusion, caused by rejection of the dogma of original sin, was to grip the twentieth century in Marxist-Leninist communism, whose horrors were fully to match the worst of the French Revolution. (p.141)

Though the scope of his work prevents him from delving into primary sources, Carroll is a thorough historian. He is also a wonderful writer; each volume reads like a well told story--which, in fact, it is. All Catholics, indeed, all Christians, would do well to read his magnificent series.

Carroll's observation seems especially prescient in light of the moral supremacy given to the democratic system of government, most adamantly and ostentatiously by the neo-conservatives, but, to a lesser extent, by almost all American public figures.

An earlier chapter in Carroll's fifth volume corrects the notion that the American Revolution was a revolution at all; more correctly, it was an assertion of independence from the British crown. It is true that the founders weren't democrats, in the sense that, although they believed in representative government, they were ultimately wary--and wisely so--of the General Will of the people. But more importantly, the founders set up a government to address a specific set of grievances, elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, to secure three things: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They suffered no delusions about the new government being an ideal State, and if some of them, like Jefferson, were deists, the bulk of the people were devoutly religious. Paul Johnson makes this point well in A History of the American People, examining in detail the role of the Great Awakening in the grand American experiment. It was, in short, their relations to religions, which separated the French Revolution from the American War for Independence; and the fervid hatred of the former, especially toward the Roman Catholic Church, was the reason for the bloodshed of The Terror.

It is only in this distinctly early American sense that I could call myself a democrat, and even then, not a very good one. Alexis de Tocqueville offers some cautionary advice toward supporters of the American conception of democracy; though well argued, and worthy of study, they are besides the point Carroll is trying to make: regardless of the particular flavor of the government, the morals of the people must be good if its rulers are to be. This suggests culture, formed extensively by religion, and, at least to Carroll and me, the Roman Catholic Faith.

Monday, August 04, 2008

On Liberty: Applications

Since this is the last post in this series, I want to thank everyone who participated, PJ especially. He promises to be busy the next couple of weeks, but we both hope to do something like this again if our schedules permit.

Throughout this little experience, I've conflated Mill's ideas with my own libertarianism more often that I ought to have done. In chapter five, it becomes clear that Mill and I have far less in common than I would have hoped; hence I must apologize for my unwarranted conflation.

We'll get to my disappointment with Mill soon enough, but first, I think it worth mentioning, at least briefly, how I've been reading this book. (Left to right, top to bottom, oddly enough.)

But seriously, having already become convinced of the necessity of liberty, my reading of Mill focused on ways to make the message of liberty more popular than it already is. I was both surprised and depressed at the popularity of the Ron Paul campaign; surprised because a message of liberty and limited government found more reception than I would have expected in today's Republican party, and depressed because so many people remained completely uninterested to the blessings of liberty.

I recently finished Justin Raimondo's Reclaiming the American Right, a polemical history of the folks from the Old Right, of which Paul--who re-read the book before seeking the presidency as a Republican in 2008--is the intellectual heir. This is actually pertinent, because it gets to the central flaw inherent in Mill's On Liberty. At the end of Raimondo's book is an essay by Scott P. Richert titled The Old Right and the Traditionalist Antipathy to Ideology. Therein, he writes:

There is no single "idea of liberty." I have one; Justin Raimondo has one; and John Podohertz has one. [Substitute Mill, PJ, and myself, and you get the idea.] And I dare say that no two of the three completely coincide... We value limited government, for instance, not because it is some platonic ideal, or it because it conforms to the (abstract) libertarian ideal of nonaggression, but because it it part of our historical [American] experience, and our historical experience has shown us its value (even if we have been made aware of its value most often in its absence).

An appeal to liberty, then, must be founded on some objective criteria--conservatives would suggest tradition--rather than an abstract idea. Which brings me, at last, to Mill, whose work, I think, ultimately falls short because of his failure to understand Richert's point. Mill writes:

[T]he individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself... Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

This may be taken, I think, as a summary of Mill's argument throughout On Liberty, but, as I alluded to above, despite the clarity of this line in the abstract, things become less clear when we come to individual examples. I will take a look at a few points with which I have considerable argument. For instance, after discussing the responsibility incumbent on parents to provide their children with a basic education, he notes:

The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing.

This strikes me as unusually naive. For one, if the State is to mandate that certain educational standards are met, they must use taxpayers funds--thus stealing the fruits of a citizen's labor--in order to do so; though it must be added that this would have to be cheaper than the current system of needless exorbitance. It would also cause an uproar in the legislative branch as the various masses sought to ensure that their particular idiocy was impressed upon the people.

More importantly: children either belong to their parents, or to the State. If they belong to their parents, the parents hold all responsibility for them, however poorly they may educate them. If they belong to the State, than the State has a duty to educate them, but it also in effect owns them--an assumption too readily swallowed by people today. Maleducation is not reason enough to violate liberty.

The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty.

This is even more absurd. The State can only support a family by robbing other families, a recourse which is just as available to the poorest members of society, so there is no argument there. Further, children again belong to their parents, not the infernal State. Here lurks the creeping totalitarian beneath every theorist who too readily separates himself from the common experience of the rest of mankind. In an essay ostensibly defending liberty, Mill actually claims that the State may prevent citizens from entering into a free contract. This is too near forced sterilization for my blood.

To his credit, Mill seems to recognize the dangers of an increase in the size of government. One very much wonders what he would have to say to us today:

If every part of the business of society which required organized concert, or large and comprehensive views, were in the hands of the government, and if government offices were universally filled by the ablest men, all the enlarged culture and practised intelligence in the country, except the purely speculative, would be concentrated in a numerous bureaucracy, to whom alone the rest of the community would look for all things: the multitude for direction and dictation in all they had to do; the able and aspiring for personal advancement.

A very wise warning, which conjures up the fascistic realms which haunted Europe--and much of the rest of the world--in the following century.

I give Mill the last word:

The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.