The Good of Government

Published May 15, 2014

First Things (June/July 2014 issue)

In his first inaugural address, President Reagan announced that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and his remark struck a chord in the hearts of his conservative supporters. American conservatives, called upon to define their position, reiterate the message that there is “too much government.” The seemingly unstoppable expansion of regulations; the increasing control over what happens in the workplace, in the public square, and even in the family; the constant manufacturing of new crimes and misdemeanors, aimed at controlling how we associate and with whom; the attempts to limit First and Second Amendment rights—these developments are viewed by many conservatives with alarm. They seem to be taking America in a new direction, away from the free association of self-governing individuals envisaged by the founders, toward a society of obedient dependents, who exchange their freedom and their responsibilities for a perpetual lien on the public purse. And you only have to look at Europe to see the result.

The European countries are governed by a political class that can escape from accountability behind the closed doors of the European institutions. Those institutions deliver an unending flow of laws and regulations covering all aspects of life, from the hours of work to the rights of sexual minorities. Everywhere in the European Union a regime of political correctness makes it difficult either to maintain, or to live by, precepts that violate the state-imposed orthodoxies. Non-discrimination laws force many religious people to go against the teachings of their faith in the matters of homosexuality, public preaching, and the display of religious symbols. Activists in the European Parliament seek to impose on all states of the Union, regardless of culture, faith, or sovereignty, an unqualified right to abortion, together with forms of “sex education” calculated to prepare young people as commodities in the sexual market, rather than as responsible adults seeking commitment and love.

A kind of hysteria of repudiation rages in European opinion-forming circles, picking one by one on the old and settled customs of a two-thousand-year-old civilization, and forbidding them or distorting them into some barely recognizable caricature. And all this goes with a gradual transfer of economic life from private enterprise to central government, so that in France and Italy more than half of citizens are net recipients of income from the state while small businesses struggle to comply with a regime of regulations that seems designed on purpose to suppress them.

Many of those developments are being replicated in America. The welfare state has expanded beyond the limits envisaged in the New Deal, and the Supreme Court is now increasingly used to impose the morality of a liberal elite on the American people, whether they like it or not. These developments add to the sense among conservatives that government is taking over. America, they fear, is rapidly surrendering the rights and freedoms of its citizens in exchange for the false security of an all-controlling state. Those tasks that only governments can perform—defense of the realm, the maintenance of law and order, the repair of infrastructure, and the coordination of relief in emergencies—are forced to compete for their budgets with activities that free citizens, left to themselves, might have managed far more efficiently through the associations of volunteers, backed up where necessary by private insurance. Wasn’t it those associations of volunteers that redeemed, for Alexis de Tocqueville, the American experiment, by showing that democracy is not a form of disorder but another kind of order, and one that could reconcile the freedom of the individual with obedience to an overarching law?

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 afree 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 beimposed 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.

Government emerges in small communities as the solution to a problem of coordination. Rules occur, not necessarily as commands delivered by some central authority, but as conventions spontaneously adhered to by everyone—like the conventions of good manners. Nobody objects to the local judge or lawmaker who is accountable to the people because he is one of them, or to the local planning committee that invites everyone to have an equal say in its decisions. Hayek and others have studied these forms of “spontaneous order,” of which the common law—the great gift that we English-speakers share—is perhaps the most vivid instance. And their arguments suggest that, as societies get bigger and incorporate more and more territory, more and more distinct forms of life and occupations, so do the problems of coordination increase. There comes a point at which coordination cannot be achieved from below, by the natural willingness of citizens to accommodate the desires and plans of their neighbors. At this point coordination begins to require government from above, by which rules and regulations are laid down for the community as a whole, and enforced by what Weber called a “monopoly on violence”—a law-enforcing system that tolerates no rival.

That describes our condition. Of course, to say as much is not to undermine the complaint against modern government, which has become too intrusive, too determined to impose habits, opinions, and values that are alien to many citizens, and too eager to place obstacles in the way of free enterprise and free association. But those effects are not the result of government. They are the result of the liberal mind-set, which is the mind-set of a substantial and powerful elite within the nation. The business of conservatives is to criticize the ones who are misusing government, and who seek to extend its remit beyond the limits that the rest of us spontaneously recognize. Conservatism should be a defense of government against its abuse by liberals.

This cause has been damaged by the failure of many conservatives to understand the true meaning of the welfare state. During the twentieth century it became clear that many matters not previously considered by the political process had arrived on the public agenda. Politicians began to recognize that if government is to enjoy the consent of those who gain no comparative advantage from their social membership, it must offer some kind of quid pro quo. This became apparent in the two world wars, when people from all classes of society were required to fight and if necessary to die. Why should they do this, if membership in the society for which they risked their lives had brought them no evident advantages? The fundamental principle was therefore widely accepted that the state has a responsibility for the welfare of its more needy citizens. This principle is merely the full-scale version of the belief adhered to by all small societies, that people should be cared for by the community when they are unable to care for themselves.

The emergence of the welfare state was therefore a more or less inevitable result of popular democracy under the impact of total war. If the welfare state has become controversial in recent times it is not because it is a departure from some natural idea of government. It is rather because it has expanded in a way that undermines its own legitimacy. As we know from both the American and the European examples, welfare policies may lead to the creation of a socially dysfunctional underclass. Sustained without work or responsibilities from generation to generation, people lose the habit of accounting to others, turn their backs on freedom, and become locked in social pathologies that undermine the cohesion of society.

That result is the opposite of the one intended, and came about in part because of the liberal mind-set, which believes that only the wealthy are accountable, since only they are truly free. The poor, the indigent, and the vulnerable are, on the liberal view, inherently blameless, and nothing bad that arises from their conduct can really be laid at their door. They are not responsible for their lives, since they have not been “empowered” to be responsible. Responsibility for their condition lies with the state. The only question is what more the state should do for them, in order to remedy the defects of which state benevolence is in part the cause.

But that way of seeing things expresses a false conception of government. The responsibilities exercised by government are rooted in the accountability of citizens. When government creates an unaccountable class it exceeds its remit, by undermining the relation on which its own legitimacy depends.

The liberal mind-set has therefore led to a conception of government that conservatives view with deep suspicion. In the liberal worldview—and you see this magisterially embodied in the philosophy of John Rawls—the state exists in order to allocate the social product. The rich are not really rich, because they don’t own that stuff. All goods, in liberal eyes, are unowned until distributed. And the state distributes the goods according to a principle of fairness that takes no account of the moral legacy of our free agreements or of the moral effects of a state-subsidized underclass.

On the liberal view, therefore, government is the art of seizing and then redistributing the good things to which all citizens have a claim. (This may seem hard on the rich, but in fact it is psychologically convenient for them, since it removes the obligation to account for their wealth.) On this view government is not the expression of a preexisting social order shaped by our free agreements and our natural disposition to hold our neighbor to account. It is the creator and manager of a social order framed according to its ruling doctrine of fairness and imposed on the people by a series of top-down decrees. Wherever this liberal conception prevails, government increases its power, while losing its inner authority. It becomes the “market-state” of Philip Bobbitt, which offers a deal to its citizens in return for their taxes, and demands no loyalty or obedience beyond a respect for the agreed terms of the deal.

But such a state no longer embodies the ethos of a nation, and no longer commands any loyalty beyond the loyalty sought by the average chain store. As in the social democracies of Europe, public displays of patriotism, of shared allegiance and pride in the country and its history, dwindle to a few desultory spasms, and the political class as a whole begins to be looked upon with sarcasm and contempt. Government ceases to be ours and becomes theirs—the property of the anonymous bureaucracy on which we all nevertheless depend for our creature comforts.

This change in the phenomenology of government is striking. But it has not yet been completed in America. Ordinary Americans are still able to see their government as an expression of their national unity. They take pride in their flag, in their military, in their national ceremonies and icons. They look for ways to “join in” the American venture, by giving time, money, and energy to local clubs of their own. They want to claim ownership of their country, and to share it with their neighbors. They take time off from their conflicts to reaffirm a shared social and political heritage, and still regard the high offices of state with respect. In crucial matters, they believe, the president does not represent a political party or an ideology but the nation—and that means all of us, united in the spontaneous order that brought us together in this land.

In other words, ordinary Americans have a conception of government that is not only natural, but at variance with the liberal idea of the state as a redistributive machine. In attacking the liberal idea, conservatives should make clear that they are reaffirming a real and natural alternative. They are defending government as an expression in symbolic and authoritative forms of our deep accountability to each other.

This does not mean that conservatives are wedded to some libertarian conception of the minimal state. The growth of modern societies has created social needs that the old patterns of free association are no longer able to satisfy. But the correct response is not to forbid the state from intruding into the areas of welfare, health care, education, and the rest, but to limit its contribution to the point where citizens’ initiatives can once again take the lead. Conservatives want a society guided by public spirit. But public spirit grows only among people who are free to act on it, and to take pleasure in the result. Public spirit is a form of private enterprise, and it is killed when the state takes over. That is why private charity has disappeared almost completely from continental Europe, and is thriving today only in the Anglosphere, where common-law justice reminds the citizen that he is accountable to others for the freedom that he enjoys.

Conservatives therefore have an obligation to map out the true domain of government, and the limits beyond which action by the government is a trespass on the freedom of the citizen. But it seems to me that they have failed to offer the electorate a believable blueprint for this, precisely because they have failed to see that what they are advocating is not freedom from government, but another and better kind of government—a government that embodies all that we surrender to our neighbors, when we join with them as a nation.

Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is the author of Notes from Underground and The Soul of the World.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today