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Did ‘The Great Society’ Ruin Society? by Pat Buchanan

800px-Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_2_July,_1964 Did ‘The Great Society’ Ruin Society?

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.”

Thus did Mitt Romney supposedly commit the gaffe of the month — for we are not to speak of the poor without unctuous empathy.

Yet, as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation reports in “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor,” Mitt was more right about America’s magnanimity than those who bewail her alleged indifference.

First, who are the poor?

To qualify, a family of four in 2010 needed to earn less than $22,314. Some 46 million Americans, 15 percent of the population, qualified.

And in what squalor were America’s poor forced to live?

Well, 99 percent had a refrigerator and stove, two-thirds had a plasma TV, a DVD player and access to cable or satellite, 43 percent were on the Internet, half had a video game system like PlayStation or Xbox.

Three-fourths of the poor had a car or truck, nine in 10 a microwave, 80 percent had air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

America’s poor enjoy amenities almost no one had in the 1950s, when John K. Galbraith described us as “The Affluent Society.”

What about homelessness? Are not millions of America’s poor on the street at night, or shivering in shelters or crowded tenements?

Well, actually, no. That is what we might call televised poverty. Of the real poor, fewer than 10 percent live in trailers, 40 percent live in apartments, and half live in townhouses or single-family homes.

Forty-one percent of poor families own their own home.

But are they not packed in like sardines, one on top of another?

Not exactly. The average poor person’s home in America has 1,400 square feet — more living space than do Europeans in 23 of the 25 wealthiest countries on the continent.

Two-thirds of America’s poor have two rooms per person, while 94 percent have at least one room per person in the family dwelling.

Only one in 25 poor persons in America uses a homeless shelter, and only briefly, sometime during the year.

What about food? Do not America’s poor suffer chronically from malnutrition and hunger?

Not so. The daily consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals of poor children is roughly the same as that of the middle class, and the poor consume more meat than the upper middle class.

Some 84 percent of America’s poor say they always have enough food to eat, while 13 percent say sometimes they do not, and less than 4 percent say they often do not have enough to eat.

Only 2.6 percent of poor children report stunted growth. Poor kids in America are, on average, an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the youth of the Greatest Generation that won World War II.

In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. government spent $910 billion on 70 means-tested programs, which comes to an average of $9,000 per year on every lower-income person in the United States.

Among the major programs from which the poor receive benefits are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program, Medicaid, public housing, low-income energy assistance and the Social Service Block Grant.

Children of the poor are educated free, K-12, and eligible for preschool Head Start, and Perkins Grants, Pell Grants and student loans for college.

Lyndon Johnson told us this was the way to build a Great Society.

Did we? Federal and state spending on social welfare is approaching $1 trillion a year, $17 trillion since the Great Society was launched, not to mention private charity. But we have witnessed a headlong descent into social decomposition.

Half of all children born to women under 30 in America now are illegitimate. Three in 10 white children are born out of wedlock, as are 53 percent of Hispanic babies and 73 percent of black babies.

Rising right along with the illegitimacy rate is the drug-use rate, the dropout rate, the crime rate and the incarceration rate.

The family, cinder block of society, is disintegrating, and along with it, society itself. Writes Rector, “The welfare system is more like a ‘safety bog’ than a safety net.”

Heritage scholars William Beach and Patrick Tyrrell put Rector’s numbers in perspective:

“Today … 67.3 million Americans — from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries — depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid or other assistance. … The United States reached another milestone in 2010. For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes.”

The 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun warned against allowing government to divide us into “tax-payers and tax-consumers.” This, he said, “would give rise to two parties and to violent conflicts and struggles between them, to obtain the control of the government.”

We are there, Mr. Calhoun, we are there.

Essays by Pat Buchanan may be found here. Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II

St Joseph Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)  Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II

On Human Work promulgated 14 September 1981

To Our Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, to the Priests, to the Religious Families, to the Sons and Daughters of the Church, and to all Men and Women of Good Will.

Venerable Brothers, and Dear Sons and Daughters, Greetings and the Apostolic Blessing.

Through work man must earn his daily bread[1] and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very natures, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe and image and likeness of God himself,[2] and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth.[3] From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguishman from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.


1. Human Work on the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum

Since May 15 of the present year was the ninetieth anniversary of the publication by the great Pope of the “social question”, Leo XIII, of the decisively important encyclical which begins with the words Rerum Novarum, I wish to devote this document to human work and, even more, to man in the vast context of the reality of work. As I said in the encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published at the beginning of my service in the See of Saint Peter in Rome, man “is the primary and fundamental way for the Church”,[4] precisely because of the inscrutable mystery of redemption in Christ; and so it is necessary to return constantly to this way and to follow it ever anew in the various aspects in which it shows us all the wealth and at the same time all the toil of human existence on earth. Continue reading

The Wisdom of Aesop by Robert Woods

The Wisdom of Aesop

by Robert Woods

imagesOne of the best courses I had within my doctoral program was a study of Aesop’s fables. We used the Babrius and Phaedrus edition in the Loeb series. Of all of the fables, I was struck recently on the political and moral implications of one in particular. The Ant and The Grasshopper should be carefully studied by all people, especially political leaders that seem to have little sense of the past and absolutely no sense of the future regarding their current actions.

Once there lived an ant and a grasshopper in a grassy meadow. All day long the ant would work hard, collecting grains of wheat from the farmer’s field far away. She would hurry to the field every morning, as soon as it was light enough to see by, and toil back with a heavy grain of wheat balanced on her head. She would put the grain of wheat carefully away in her cupboard, and then hurry back to the field for another one. All day long she would work, without stop or rest, scurrying back and forth from the field, collecting the grains of wheat and storing them carefully in her cupboard.

The grasshopper would look at her and laugh. ‘Why do you work so hard, dear ant?’ he would say. ‘Come, rest awhile, listen to my song. Summer is here, the days are long and bright. Why waste the sunshine in labour and toil?’

The ant would ignore him, and head bent, would just hurry to the field a little faster. This would make the grasshopper laugh even louder. ‘What a silly little ant you are!’ he would call after her. ‘Come, come and dance with me! Forget about work! Enjoy the summer! Live a little!’ And the grasshopper would hop away across the meadow, singing and dancing merrily.

Summer faded into autumn, and autumn turned into winter. The sun was hardly seen, and the days were short and grey, the nights long and dark. It became freezing cold, and snow began to fall.

The grasshopper didn’t feel like singing any more. He was cold and hungry. He had nowhere to shelter from the snow, and nothing to eat. The meadow and the farmer’s field were covered in snow, and there was no food to be had. ‘Oh what shall I do? Where shall I go?’ wailed the grasshopper. Suddenly he remembered the ant. ‘Ah – I shall go to the ant and ask her for food and shelter!’ declared the grasshopper, perking up. So off he went to the ant’s house and knocked at her door. ‘Hello ant!’ he cried cheerfully. ‘Here I am, to sing for you, as I warm myself by your fire, while you get me some food from that cupboard of yours!’

The ant looked at the grasshopper and said, ‘All summer long I worked hard while you made fun of me, and sang and danced. You should have thought of winter then! Find somewhere else to sing, grasshopper! There is no warmth or food for you here!’ And the ant shut the door in the grasshopper’s face.

As we did in that doctoral seminar, I’ll let you provide the best application. There is tremendous wisdom in the fabulist tradition. If you have not read them lately, it would benefit you. Imagine proverbial teachings in short-short story form. Let us rescue these wise teachings from the elementary school and pray our “highly educated” politicians read some fables.

Books mentioned in this essay are available in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreEssays by Robert Woods may be found here.

Robert M. Woods is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Director of the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University. He writes for Musings of a Christian Humanist

Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social Order

by Russell Kirk

Russell-Kirk-in-hat-in-front-of-Piety-Hill-233x300A number of Americans, fancying that the world is governed mainly by economic doctrines and practices, are inclined to think that an era of international good feeling lies before us. I intend to sprinkle some drops of cold water on such hasty hopes. I have no faith in the notion that an abstract “democratic capitalism” is about to gain acceptance throughout the world.

We find fairly widespread in these United States a “capitalistic” version of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism – more’s the pity. It is not a theoretical “democratic capitalism” that can preserve, unaided, order and justice and freedom. Materialism was an American vice when Alexis de Tocqueville travelled in the United States. That vice has not diminished in power. People who maintain that production and consumption are the ends of human existence presently will find themselves impoverished materially, as well as spiritually.
It is true that the masters of what once was the Soviet Union have modified their Marxism – and not the disciples of Yeltsin merely. Consider this passage from Mikhail Gorbachev’s book Perestroika(1987):

We must encourage efficiency in production and the talent of a writer, scientist, or any other upright and hard-working citizen. On this point we want to be perfectly clear:socialism has nothing to do with equalizing. . . . Socialism has a different criterion for redistributing social benefits: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

Doesn’t this sound rather like democratic capitalism? If Perestroika and similar designs prevail in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, can any great obstacle remain to the universal triumph of democratic capitalism? Continue reading

Was Jesus a Socialist or a Capitalist? by Johnnie Moore

Was Jesus a Socialist or a Capitalist?Was Jesus a Socialist or a Capitalist?

Jan 4, 2013

It would not surprise me if Jesus recruited his disciple Matthew, Capernaum’s chief tax collector, just to get one more taxman off the street.

After all, any honest interpretation of Scripture should reject today’s popular notion that Jesus promoted a system of massive wealth redistribution that makes the government God. That’s “socialism,” not Christianity.

It does surprise me, then, when liberal politicians don the caps of rookie theologians, and argue that Jesus would not be in favor of capitalism.

Liberals go on tirades against inoffensive manger scenes set up at Christmas time, make an all-out war against any religious symbolism in public schools and deny that America was founded upon Judeo-Christian values—despite those values being etched in marble all over Washington.

But, when they want to justify the redistribution of wealth…then, they name-drop their buddy, Jesus.


These revisionist “theologians” are not reading the Bible Christians have read for centuries. Maybe they should make reading the Gospels one of their New Year’s resolutions.

When they do, they’ll discover several “troublesome” things.

First, Jesus encouraged his followers to exclusively practice voluntary, personal charity. At no point—either in Jesus’ ministry or in the ministry of the early church—were Christians forced to surrender their money so that elders might distribute it to others. On the contrary, they were encouraged (even in Acts 4:32-35) to give voluntarily, and they did so.

Secondly, in two awfully capitalistic moments, Jesus once stated outright that “a worker deserves his wages (Luke 10:7),” and delivered an entire parable praising the profitable, investment strategy of some workers while condemning the single man who didn’t make a profit as “wicked and lazy.” Jesus even says, when the servant returns with no profit, “you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (Matthew 25:14-27)” Jesus liked bankers.

Thirdly, Jesus didn’t see the government as the answer to society’s greatest moral and social ills. In fact, up until the very end of his life, he fought against his own disciples who were imagining a revolution that would end in Jesus being set up as an earthly king. He once said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight… (John 18:36)” Continue reading

Is Totalitarian Liberalism A Mutant Form of Christianity? by Tracey Rowland

Is Totalitarian Liberalism A Mutant Form of Christianity?

by Tracey Rowland 
September 20, 2012
When the Obama Administration began its Kulturkampf against American Catholics my husband suggested to me that if the Church is forced to pay for its employees’ contraceptives then there should be an option clause for practicing Catholics. An equivalent amount of the Church’s money spent on other people’s recreational sex should be given to faithful Catholics to cover whatever they do for recreation—for example, golf, tennis, fishing, or weekends at the beach house with hot rock massages.

In a post-Christian world gods don’t disappear. Christ is simply replaced by the apparatus of the nation-state. Political leaders assume to themselves the powers and prerogatives formerly associated with deities, above all, powers over life and death and reproduction.

The very same politicians who feign moral outrage over the Church’s moral advice to Catholic couples use coercive state power to venture further into bedrooms than any encyclical. If a woman chooses to use the pill in defiance of three popes who have said it’s morally wrong, then it is still her choice. The worst outcome for her is that she is left with an uneasy conscience. She won’t be sent to prison, she won’t be named in public and she won’t be forced to pay higher taxation. But if a woman happens to be Chinese and conceives a second child and is marched off to an abortion clinic then that is not her choice. That is state generated oppression.

The attempt to use the powers of the state to control human reproduction did not begin with Barack Obama and his friends at the Planned Parenthood Federation. It goes at least as far back as Joseph Stalin and his Bolshevik comrades who wanted more Soviet babies for more Soviet cannon fodder, and like a lot of Soviet practices it had an analogue in the Nazi regime. In 1936 Heinrich Himmler set up a network of copulation camps to make genetically sound women available for fertilization by SS alpha males.

These kinds of policies tend to see-saw between those designed to promote the birth rate and those designed to reduce the birth rate.

Just last week the Singapore government decided to embark on a baby boom program. This followed a scary report in which Singapore came in last on a fertility table listing 103 nations. Singapore showed a fertility rate of 0.78. The response of the government was to engage the mint sweets company Mentos to sponsor a “National Night” commercial to persuade Singaporeans to conceive. On August 9, (the Singaporean national day) Singaporeans were exhorted to “manufacture life” and “make the birth-rate spike.” The three minute hip-hop commercial included the phrase: “Just don’t wake the kids: cos they’ll be appalled by the stuff we gon’ do up in that bedroom.” The commercial addressed its human subjects as though they were rutting reindeers.

When a culture ceases to be Christian, human dignity becomes an alien concept. We no longer “make love” and “have a family,” we do “appalling stuff,” we “manufacture life.”

Meanwhile, across the globe, social engineers have decided that the next great human problem to be addressed is circumcision. Everywhere from Germany to the tiny “Apple Island” of Tasmania politicians are either banning the practice of male circumcision or promoting legislation to do so.

I can remember asking my grandmother about this tradition when I was a child. I thought it was painful for baby boys and wondered why people did it. My grandmother’s reply was that it makes a lot of sense in hot climates. It’s much easier to be circumcised as a baby then to have more radical surgery later on if the boy keeps getting infections. As far as she was concerned it was not a theological issue, just a common sense practice in places like outback Australia and the Middle East—places that can be hot, humid and sandy. For Jews and Muslims however it is also a religious rite.

As one trawls through the news reports one can easily find examples of politicians playing god and trying to solve the problems generated by the human exercise of free will by fettering its exercise. They are aided and abetted by teams of social engineers employed by their various departments. The people who pay for these public servants are mostly the professional members of the middle class who are unable to hide their income and thus supply the lion’s share of national budgets. They end up paying the wages of the very people who are trying to control the most intimate aspects of their lives.

One can of course spend hours debating the legitimate limits of human freedom—where it begins and ends—with reference to the fact that we are social beings, that we live in communities, that no man is an island. However, wherever the lines are drawn, it should be far from the sphere of marital intimacy and the state regulation of religious practices.

A Deeper Theological Question

One of the deeper theological issues raised by politicians who behave like gods is what is their motivation? Why do so many spend their energy promoting a culture of death?

Perhaps once we achieve the Nietzschean paradise of life beyond good and evil we acquire new spiritual pathologies? There is an inverted association of eros with death, the attractive with the vulgar.

How do we deal with this?

First, I think we must recognize that the liberal tradition can take a totalitarian form. (Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas have been making this point for some time). Second, when it does, it usually tries to offer us a state apparatus as our new savior—our replacement for Christ. (William T. Cavanaugh has done some excellent historical research on this point). And third, an anti-Christ never arises without him and his culture being parasitic on the Christian tradition. (Cardinal Scola has emphasized this). Mutant forms of Christianity are always our worst enemy!

Perhaps the policies of the Obama regime represent the logical outgrowth of a mutant form of Christianity where Christ is replaced first by “Christian values,” then “Christian values” are replaced by concepts like justice and freedom and equality de-coupled from any connection to Christ, Christian culture or even Stoic natural law; and then finally these secularized concepts are re-coupled to the will to power of politicians and social engineers.

As David Bentley Hart has noted, when people reject Christ they have a tendency to reject everything that Christian civilization ever baptized of pre-Christian civilization. All the treasures of ancient Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem get thrown overboard in the manic attempt to snuff out the last trace of the Lamb of God in human culture. At present this seems to include the notion that human dignity is linked to the capacity for love and freedom and rationality.

Above all our new political saviors want to liberate us from the idea that we have been made in the image of God. They do this at the same time as giving themselves god-like powers. If we start to believe that we really are just rutting animals this will give them even more power. The Nietzschean nightmare will be complete—there will be one great herd of animals and a few Übermenschen to govern them, direct their wills, determine when they will reproduce, and how often, and an intermediate class of social engineers running the Health and Education departments, policing reproductive information and the compulsory national curriculum. And this would be different from Fascism how?

Professor Tracey Rowland is Dean and Permanent Fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne). She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010). Reprinted with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.

Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism by George W. Carey

Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism

by George W. Carey
September 17, 2012
My purpose is to set forth and explore the ramifications of two different conceptions or paradigms of American federalism whose roots can be traced to The Federalist essays of both Hamilton and Madison. Certain conclusions flow from this analysis that, in my judgment, are important to the conservative approach and thinking about centralization. Perhaps the most significant of these stems from the apparent incongruity between the arguments and position of American conservatives, who lament the decline of federalism and the ensuing centralization, and the more traditional and theoretical arguments in conservative thought concerning the virtues of decentralization and the dangers of centralization.

My examination of The Federalist’s teaching regarding federalism should help clarify the bases for the disputes that have arisen over its meaning since the inception of the American constitutional system. It should make clear, as well, that there is more than one legitimate interpretation of the Framers’ understanding of the division of powers between the states and national government. It will, more importantly, provide the background for shedding some light on the nature of the disconnect between the traditional conservative concerns about centralization and those that figure most prominently in the American context. In fact, as I think my analysis will show, the conception of American federalism advanced by conservatives renders it extremely difficult to achieve the virtues associated with decentralization that are emphasized in conservative thought stretching back to Burke and Tocqueville.

Constitutional Federalism

We turn first to The Federalist and its teachings regarding the federal principle. For our purposes the most relevant of these relates to the “extent” of national power, a matter most tellingly discussed in Federalist no. 39. While Madison, the author of this particular essay, regarded the extent of powers of the national and state governments to be one of only five “tests” for determining the true federal character of the proposed Constitution, this test is the essence of federalism as it is understood today. In his brief discussion of the extent of powers, Madison sets forth the notion of divided sovereignty: the “jurisdiction [of the proposed government] extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several states, a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.”[1] Hamilton in Federalist no. 9 set forth the same understanding: “The proposed constitution…. Leaves in their [the states’] possession certain exclusive, and very important, portions of sovereign power” (41). In both formulations the states are understood to possess a residuary sovereignty that cannot be “invaded” or infringed by the national government.

This divided sovereignty conception of federalism raises perplexing problems, not the least of which is whether, in the last analysis, sovereignty can be divided. Madison faces up to certain of the more obvious and immediate difficulties in Federalist no. 39 by way of tackling the question, what if controversies between the states and national government should arise over the extent of their respective jurisdictions?—controversies that, Madison believed, are inevitable. His answer is that a “tribunal,” which “is to be established under the general government,” should “ultimately…decide.” He is quick to add that this tribunal should make its decisions “impartially, according to the rules of the constitution.” At the same time, he insists this tribunal should be “established under the general, rather than under the local governments” in order to avoid “an appeal to the sword, and a dissolution of the compact.” This “position,” he felt, was “not likely to be combated” (198).

To the innocent eye, it is not at all clear from the textual context that by “tribunal” Madison means the Supreme Court, though in his later correspondence he maintains that this was, indeed, his meaning. Nevertheless, his solution has obvious drawbacks. Can an institution of the national government render an impartial decision when the national government is itself a party to the dispute? This is a concern raised most effectively by the antifederalist Brutus during the ratification struggle and later echoed by Jefferson, Taylor, and, among others, Calhoun. Moreover, Madison’s reference to “rules of the Constitution” is somewhat baffling in that it suggests there are agreed upon “rules” to be found in the Constitution that will help the “tribunal” in rendering an “impartial” decision. On this score, we cannot help but note that Justice Marshall found no such “rules” in rendering his decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the first major case involving competing jurisdictional claims. In sum, a second look at Madison’s solution to the problems posed by divided sovereignty shows that it is not free from serious difficulties. As we shall see in short order, even profounder difficulties arise when we consider whether there can be any such thing as residuary state sovereignty, given the authority that national government must possess to defend the nation in time of war.

Leaving these concerns to one side, Madison’s discussion and Hamilton’s statement regarding state residual sovereignty leads directly to what can appropriately be termed constitutional federalism. Simply put, this understanding of federalism derives from the divided sovereignty paradigm which envisions a constitutional division of powers such as that set forth by Madison and Hamilton; a division of powers that, perforce, can only be altered by constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court is the institution vested with the responsibility of maintaining this division, a function it should perform by impartially applying the “rules” of the Constitution.

The constitutional federalism “model” of state/national relations, it should be noted, was accepted, albeit intermittently, by the Supreme Court well into the twentieth century. Indeed, over the decades, the Court occasionally took great pains to confine Congress’s commerce power in order to preserve what it perceived to be the constitutionally reserved powers of the states. At one point it drew a distinction between manufacture and commerce, thereby limiting the power of the national government to curb monopolies under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890).[2] In the famous Child Labor Case, Justice Day, speaking for a majority, went so far as to add the word “expressly” to the terms of the Tenth Amendment in striking down federal legislation designed to eliminate child labor.“In interpreting the Constitution,” he maintained, “it must never be forgotten that the nation is made up of states to which are intrusted the powers of local government. And to them and to the people the powers not expressly delegated to the national government are reserved.”[3] At various times, the Court further limited the reach of the commerce power by employing the “direct/indirect affect” test; that is, “where the effect of intrastate transactions upon interstate commerce is merely indirect, such transactions remain within the domain of State power.”[4] The persistence of this constitutional federalism model over the decades is attested to by the fact that an amendment to the Constitution was felt to be necessary to impose prohibition upon the country. Today, ordinary legislation would suffice for this purpose—a fact that illustrates how much our understanding of federalism has changed.

Clearly this constitutional federalism proved incompatible with the underlying philosophy of the New Deal. In fact, its core principle of divided sovereignty, that the states possessed inviolable portions of sovereign power, provided solid grounds for declaring major New Deal policies unconstitutional. And when the Court, under intense political pressures, abandoned the constitutional federalism framework in 1937, thereby clearing the way for the New Deal, many observers felt that constitutional federalism, itself, had finally seen its last days. And so it seemed for a period of nearly sixty years as the Court in one decision after another clearly repudiated this framework. Yet, and somewhat of a surprise, there are indications that the doctrine might be coming back to life, the most important of these being the Court’s decision in U.S. v. Lopez (1995). In this decision, almost universally hailed by conservatives, a majority of the Court returned to the constitutional federalism model to strike down the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act that banned all guns in the vicinity of public or private schools. More specifically, it held that the prohibited action did not “substantially affect” interstate commerce, which therefore placed the matter under state jurisdiction.[5]

Political Federalism

The foregoing account, while familiar to virtually all students of American government, is a necessary prelude to the development of the second model or framework of federalism that emerges from the pages of The Federalist. The outlines of this second understanding of state/national relations is found in the very first paragraph of essay number forty-six. Madison points out here that the national and state government are both “substantially dependent on the great body of citizens of the United States”; that they are “but different agents and trustees of the people, instituted with different powers, and designated for different purposes.” He notes that “The adversaries of the Constitution” have viewed them in a different light, “as mutual rivals and enemies” lacking any common superior. This view, he insists, is erroneous. At this juncture in his argument, we might expect Madison to repeat what he has said about an impartial tribunal in number thirty nine; to wit, that a tribunal will impartially resolve disputes between the two jurisdictions… But he does not do so. Instead he contends that these adversaries “must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone; and that it will not depend merely on the comparative ambition or address of the different governments, whether either, or which of them, will be able to enlarge its sphere of jurisdiction at the expense of the other.” He concludes, “Truth, no less than decency requires, that the event in every case, should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents” (243).

By “the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents” it seems clear that Madison has in mind the people of the United States, collectively speaking. It is the sentiments and sanction of the people comprising the nation—whether the people in this context be thought of as a majority of the adult population or in a more restrictive sense, e.g., the majority of qualified voters—that ought to be the ultimate authority in determining the extent of national/states powers. It seems equally clear that the will or sentiments of the people or common constituents can only be determined through an organ of national government, principally by the distinctly political departments of the national government, primarily the Congress. These conclusions are clearly affirmed by what both Madison and Hamilton write elsewhere concerning the relative strengths and appeals of the two governments in securing popular support. For instance, at various points in The Federalist both simply assume that disputes between the states and national government will be settled by the people. Hamilton acknowledges in Federalist no. 31 that “in republics, strength is always on the side of the people” and points out—supporting Madison’s estimate set forth later in Federalist nos. 45 and 46—that there are “weighty reasons” to believe that the state governments will enjoy advantages in any contest for popular support (153). But neither is certain that this will necessarily be the case. Madison, for instance, writes that the national government can overcome the advantages enjoyed by the states with the common constituents by “manifest and irresistible proofs of a better administration” (46:244), and Hamilton in essay no. 27 sets forth a variety of reasons for believing it very probable that “the general government will be better administered than the particular governments”(133).

In this vein, other aspects of the tensions between the state and national governments ought to be noted. If the national government should unduly encroach upon the states, both Madison and Hamilton look to political remedies. “If the federal government,” Hamilton argues, “should overpass the just bounds of its authority, and make a tyrannical use of its powers; the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the constitution, as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify” (33:160). One such obvious measure, expressly put forth by Madison, is the “election of more faithful representatives” who can “annul the act of the usurpers” (44:235). Both emphasize the limits that state resistance will place upon the national government’s efforts to aggrandize state powers. In Federalist no. 46, Madison points out that the “means of opposition” possessed by the states to unpopular national legislation are “powerful and at hand.” The more benign would include the “frowns of the executive magistracy of the state,” the “disquietude of the people” and their refusal “to co-operate with the officers of the union.” But matters could get far worse. The “ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the state governments,” he contends, would arouse not only the opposition of a “single state, or of a few states only. They would be signals of general alarm,” either resulting in the national government backing down or in a resort to arms. At this point Madison asks rhetorically: “But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?” How could it come to pass, he wonders, that “one set of representatives would be contending against thirteen sets of representatives, with the whole body of their common constituents on the side of the latter” (246). His point, on this score, seems well taken.

Clearly this understanding of state/national conflicts and the means of their resolution is miles apart from that of the constitutional federalism which featured an impartial tribunal. In fact, what we have from this view of The Federalist’s teachings is another, distinct model of federalism; namely, a political federalism that relies upon the political agencies of national government, principally the Congress, to use its best lights in determining what the relationship between the states and national government ought to be. In doing this, Congress is necessarily constrained by what the common constituents will allow, but there are no constitutional barriers or limits to its intrusion upon the states’ reserved powers. In this context, the only limitation suggested by Hamilton or Madison is practicality or efficiency. As Madison puts it, the people ought to be able to repose their trust where they think it “most due,” but even then the states will retain certain powers and responsibilities “because it is only within a certain sphere, that the federal power can, in the nature of things, be advantageously administered” (46:244). In this model or framework of federalism, the division of powers between the states and national government does not possess any constitutional sanction. Under its “rules” disputes are to be resolved through the political processes, not through the agency of an impartial tribunal (i.e., the Supreme Court).

The distinction between constitutional federalism and political federalism should not be viewed as merely a theoretical refinement bearing little relation to practical politics. The intense controversy over the role of the Supreme Court during the 1930s—a controversy that led to Roosevelt’s court packing plan—was essentially a clash between these two paradigms of federalism. Those supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were, in effect, arguing that the common constituents wanted to readjust the boundaries between state and national authority; that, through the election of and continued support for those committed to New Deal policies, they had effectively rendered an authoritative decision validating the expansion of national authority. On the opposite side, of course, were those (mostly conservative) who contended that New Deal policies involved the usurpation of the traditional residual sovereignty of the states; that constitutional amendments expanding national authority were required before such policies could legitimately be put into effect.[6]

In surveying the political debates surrounding issues of federalism—e.g., the growing centralization of authority, decline of the states—both paradigms come into play, often in a mixed fashion. For instance, many conservatives, if we are to judge from their rhetoric over the decades, actually embrace both paradigms. Consider the familiar conservative refrain that the “downfall” of the Framers’ federal design occurred with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment that allowed for the direct election of Senators. From this point on, it is maintained, there has been no effective check against the aggrandizement of the states’ residual sovereignty by the national government. This view, so far as it goes, is compatible with the political version of federalism; that is, whatever emerged from a the political processes when state “interests” had effective representation would not intrude upon the states’ residual sovereignty. Yet, at the same time, conservatives—even those who embrace this view—also seem to cling to the constitutional conception of federalism. So much is evident in their common lament that since New Deal days the Supreme Court has largely abdicated its role as impartial arbiter between the states and national government. Clearly conservatives would prefer a double protection, political and constitutional, for state sovereignty, though at present they must necessarily be content with adopting and urging constitutional federalism.

There are, of course, practical, if not logical, difficulties with the conservative stance towards federalism. From a purely theoretical view, political federalism does not acknowledge a fixed, unalterable division of sovereignty between the state and national governments. As a consequence, the Court has no legitimate role in second guessing the outcome of the political processes which presumably embody the wishes of the common constituents. Likewise, constitutional federalism is not concerned with the political processes or whether state interests are effectively represented or not. Within this framework the concern is whether the outcome of the political process conforms with what is understood to be the constitutional division of powers. In this determination, of course, the Court would play a decisive role. And, while Publius is guilty of speaking with forked tongue regarding the resolution of state/national disputes, the weight of evidence supports the view that he embraced the political federalism paradigm; a paradigm, it should be added, that is far more compatible with his more general teachings as we will see immediately below.

Inherent Difficulties

Neither the constitutional nor political understanding of federalism is free from difficulties, though they are of a different order for each. Constitutional federalism is incompatible with other, critical elements of Publius’s thought. Hamilton regarded it as axiomatic that “the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the person from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained” (23:113). He repeats and expands upon this axiom a bit later in the essays: “the means ought to be proportioned to the end; …every power ought to be commensurate with its object; …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect which is itself incapable of definition” (31:150). Clearly Madison shared this view: “No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorized; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it, is included” (44:235). Moreover, what Madison has to say about the powers of the national government and defense fits in nicely with Hamilton’s views: “The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack. They will in fact be ever determined by these rules, and by no others. It is vain to oppose constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation” (41:209). In sum, the national government, given the end of providing for the common defense, may well have to use powers well beyond those that are specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Additionally, these powers and their extent cannot be anticipated in advance.

From this ends/means view, the constitutional formulation of federalism with its stipulations of inviolable state sovereignty—which, as we have noted, is found at two distinct and pivotal places in Publius’s discussion of federalism—is perhaps best understood as calculated to dampen antifederalist arguments relative to the subordinate role of the states under the proposed Constitution. Simply put, from what he does say about the means being commensurate with the end, it seems highly doubtful that Publius could subscribe to the notion of inviolable state sovereignty. Specifically, it seems clear that Publius would abandon the notion of an inviolable state sovereignty if preserving this sovereignty obstructed or impeded the efforts of the national government to provide for the common defense. The extent to which encroachments on the states’ reserved powers would be necessary, given the ends entrusted to national authority and what the nature of these intrusions might be, Publius as much as tells us, cannot be foreseen. But it seems evident, from his discussion, that he would not be so imprudent as to subscribe to the doctrine of any state inviolable sovereignty which, in effect, says “never” to any federal encroachment of the states’ domain, particularly when the survival of the nation might be involved.

Again, if this seems too abstract or theoretical, we need only recall the justifications for the national government setting speed limits for automobiles, a function traditionally regarded as well within the province of the states’ police powers. The issue at stake was the preservation of fuels that were regarded as essential for our national defense. Likewise, it was possible for some to argue at the height of the “Cold War” that an effective civil defense, one that would minimize the impact of a nuclear strike, necessitated, inter alia, the national government dictating zoning laws and promulgating material and structural minimums for buildings with the end of securing neighborhoods “self-sufficient for survival purposes.”[7]

This consideration leads to what would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle in implementing constitutional federalism, to wit, the Court would have to articulate a test or tests that could effectively delineate when the national government has “overreached” its legitimate realm. The difficulties in this are illustrated in the long history of the Court’s interpretation of the Congress’s commerce power, the power most frequently used to expand the domain of national authority. To recur to our previous discussion, Can the “direct/indirect” test be refined to a sufficient degree in all circumstances such that its application is not arbitrary or such that the decisions flowing from its application do not bear the characteristics of ad hoc determinations, lacking any fixed guidelines or principles? Could tests of this kind be fashioned with the precision and clarity necessary for members of the political branches to understand the limits of their powers? The lack of such tests, of course, is a major reason why modern Courts have, in the main, subscribed to the model of political federalism.

This analysis points up as well the great difficulty associated with the political federalism, namely, there are no recognized limits to the powers of the national government. In effect, Congress becomes the judge of its own power relative to the states. Again, to recur to our previous survey of the commerce powers, the line of reasoning that supports the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990 knows no limits. That reasoning, as Chief Justice Rehnquist observes in the Lopez case, would give Congress the authority to “regulate not only all violent crime, but all activities that might lead to violent crime, regardless of how tenuously they relate to interstate commerce.” He concludes, in effect, that in the absence of any constitutional limitations on the commerce power—i.e., the state of affairs in the paradigm of political federalism—the Congress could assume “a general police power of the sort retained by the States.” And this, as he points out, would mean “that the Constitution’s enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated, and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local.”[8]

In short, the conservative understanding of federalism, a constitutional federalism that would restrict the centralizing of the national government, is not free of insurmountable difficulties. Nor, can it be said, that this understanding of federalism is the same as the Framers’, a fact that should give conservatives pause for concern. At the same time, it should be emphasized that the liberals’ embrace of political federalism rests upon a reasoning that would allow the national government to take over every function of government, from issuing marriage licenses to garbage collection. But, while neither conception of federalism is, by itself, satisfactory, political federalism now holds sway. And there is every prospect that it will continue to do so for the indefinite future.

Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism

With this before us, we can now turn to the task of putting the concerns about federalism into the broader context of conservative thinking about the virtues of decentralization and the dangers of centralization, themes common to virtually all schools of conservative thought. We do so by focusing on major, relatively discrete issues.

(1) Conservatives have good reason to look upon the decline and death of constitutional federalism as a potential blessing. We say this despite the fact that this version of federalism is presently championed by conservatives. Why so? Simply because their constitutional federalism offers no solution to the basic problems caused by the centralized welfare state—not, at least, those identified by proponents of decentralization whose views reflect traditional conservative thought. Robert Nisbet, for instance, while granting that “the single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial State,” informs us at the same time that “The conflict between the central power of the political State and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, gild, and local community has been…the main source of those dislocations of social structure and uprooting of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age.”[9] One of Nisbet’s overriding concerns is the atrophy of social institutions and voluntary associations which mediate between the individual and the broader society; entities that impart to the individual “his concept of the outer world and his sense of position in it.”[10] Bertrand de Jouvenel’s concern about centralization likewise centers on the absorption of society by the state whose “beneficent authority will watch over every man from cradle to grave, repairing the disasters which befall him, even when they are of his own making, controlling his personal development and orienting him toward the most appropriate use of his faculties.”[11] This state of affairs represents, he writes, the victory of securitarianism over libertarianism, “of fear over self-confidence”[12]; a fear fueled by a prevailing view of society “which has refused to see…anything except the individual men and women who make it, and a central mainspring, the state. Everything else it has disregarded, and the role of the spiritual and social authorities has been denied.”[13] Finally, Wilhelm Roepke, after drawing a distinction between feudal decentralization, authoritarian in nature, and “communal” decentralization, consisting of intermediate associations of various kinds, contends that “Only [communal] decentralization seems to be a net gain to liberty and the healthy equilibrium of society, and a counterweight to the state.”[14] In other words, these theorists view the key dimensions of decentralization and its virtues largely apart from simply the political decentralization called for by constitutional federalism.

This point regarding the relationship between the broader theoretical arguments for decentralization and constitutional federalism deserves attention, if only because those who urge a return to constitutional federalism seem to assume tacitly that with its restoration the virtues of decentralization, such as those identified by Jouvenel, Nisbet, Roepke and others, will be realized. To be sure, constitutional federalism for a period thwarted those policies that have over the decades caused the disintegration of mediating associations and institutions; policies that have resulted in what is, at least legalistically speaking, a unitary political system. For this reason there is a certain linkage between the two. Yet, as we have seen, the grounds or principles constitutional federalists used to thwart these policies were arbitrary, highly vulnerable to legitimate criticism. More importantly, they relied on a reasoning about the constitution that, understandably, had nothing to say about the social consequences of the programs in question. These clearly were matters beyond its ken. We can, perhaps, best illustrate the shortcomings of constitutional federalism by asking: Suppose a resurgence of constitutional federalism and the states acquire substantial powers now exercised by the national government, what values or guidelines might be derived from it by way of informing state legislators how they should exercise their new found powers? If this came to pass, what principles could constitutional federalism offer, say, the California legislature by way of indicating the proper relationship between the state government and local jurisdictions? Or, are we to accept the very dubious assumption that decision-making at the state level will by itself be the cure for what ails us?

As we have endeavored to show, there is an incongruity between the outlook and position of those who argue for constitutional federalism and the values and goals normally associated with decentralization emphasized in more comprehensive conservative theory. There is a difference in focus: the comprehensive approach looks to social and economic factors and values, to intermediate associations and the individuals’ integration into the larger society in a productive and worthwhile fashion; the constitutional approach, when one goes beyond its legalisms, emphasizes a greater, normally unspecified, liberty; wider and more enthusiastic political participation; and more immediate, “hands on” government. The vocabulary of the two approaches differs. The constitutional federalist speaks about “reserved powers,” “states rights,” “local control,” Tenth Amendment, whereas the theorists speak of “alienation,” “deracination,” “mediating institutions,” “secularization.”

(2) If I am essentially correct in saying that constitutional federalism is probably dead and that, in any event, it possesses no “hooks” to grapple with the problems caused by centralization (nor, we must acknowledge, was it designed to), then what potential does political federalism possess for achieving the values of decentralization associated with conservative thought? This question may seem odd because in the United States, as we have already remarked, political federalism eventually opened the door to political centralization and the emergence of the welfare state. It is, nevertheless, the paradigm that has and, by all evidences, will prevail for the indefinite future. Consequently, if there is to be any realization of the benefits of centralization or cures for the problems that have arisen because of policies pursued through the agencies of the central government, they must be realized within its confines. If that proves impossible, we have no recourse within the confines of the existing regime.

In answering this question, we should note at the outset that political federalism is as normatively vacuous as constitutional federalism. By itself it provides no principles or guidelines that would serve to inform decision makers about the “proper” division of powers or when the national government ought to desist or push ahead with its policies involving state/national relations. The only restraint against an unproductive concentration of power at the national level or against the initiation or perpetuation of policies destructive of the social fibre necessary for a healthy society would be the acceptance by decision makers of a “constitutional morality” that would itself serve as a restraint.

Now the principle that is frequently and appropriately mentioned in this context—and one that is often, though erroneously, connected with constitutional federalism—is subsidiarity.[15] The principle of subsidiarity, which has received its most extensive development in Catholic social thought, is based on a “fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community that which [individuals] can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”[16] This principle clearly takes us beyond the narrow constitutional federalism to those relationships most important to the social conservatives because it leads straightaway to the proposition that government ought not to wrest functions and responsibilities best fulfilled by mediating groups, associations, or institutions, an injunction that would apply to the state governments as well as the national. By observing this proscription, it is contended, the state is enabled to “perform with greater freedom, vigor and effectiveness, the tasks belonging properly to it, and which it alone can accomplish.”[17]

Obviously the principle of subsidiarity is efficacious only to the extent that it is the prevailing morality in the sense set forth above. Catholic teaching acknowledges so much: “Let those in power, therefore be convinced that the more faithfully this principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is followed and a hierarchical order prevails among the various organizations, the more excellent will be the authority and efficiency of the society, and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the commonwealth.”[18] The operative words here are “Let those in power…be convinced.” There is no inherent reason why our leaders cannot be convinced, nor is there any inherent reason why the subsidiarity principle cannot serve to provide a “constitutional morality” in the sense suggested above. And political federalism, far from being incompatible with the subsidiarity principle, provides the latitude and means for such a conversion. Political federalism, this is to say, is itself neutral with respect to the issues surrounding state/national relations. While, as noted above, it is associated with the progressive agenda and the New Deal, we should remember that Progressives championed this conception of federalism in order to clear the path for their policies; policies, moreover, that they believed enjoyed the support of the common constituents. In this context, political federalism was only regarded as instrumental to centralization, not as a doctrine that should determine the substance and character of policies. The bright side of political federalism, briefly put, is that the decision-making process it sanctions is receptive to the introduction of a morality such as that embodied in the subsidiarity principle. In other words, the possibility exists that the subsidiarity principle might be “sold” to the people and Congress as the basis for judging policies and programs that touch upon the concerns shared by conservatives.

(3) The critical question, of course, is whether the subsidiarity principle can ever be sold in the sense suggested above. To begin with, the principle is not as simple as it is presented here; it will not yield easy answers regarding the role of the national government with respect to the states, much less the varied mediating institutions and associations within society.[19] This is not to say that its basic principles would not set off alarm bells for such measures as the Gun-Free School Zone Act, Violence Against Women Act or governmentally sponsored faith based initiatives. No doubt, they would lead to a reexamination of existing policies that have led to an erosion of our intermediate structures and institutions. But complexities would arise when, for instance, questions arise over the degree and kind of aid the national government might lend to subsidiary organizations without stunting their development.

Whatever difficulties might arise in the interpretation and application of subsidiarity pale in contrast to those that arise from the political culture created by decades of centralization. As even the most casual observer realizes, the system now displays the major shortcomings of mass democracy. Virtually all major groups, economic, racial, and social, are recipients of governmental largesse; welfare programs once begun are looked upon as bestowing “entitlements,” rendering them invulnerable to elimination or reduction. The politicians to gain reelection pander to immediate popular interests and demands, pay scant heed to considerations of long-term common good. The governments’ appetite for revenues seems boundless as the people’s dependency on government grows. Indeed, large sectors of the population are approaching the state of “perpetual childhood” pictured by Tocqueville with their wants, cares, pleasures tended to by government. To overcome the lure of the centralized welfare state once it has taken root is, perhaps, impossible.

(4). Another major obstacle to subsidiarity—and one that is part of a broader dispute concerning the essential character of the constitution regime—is the prevailing morality that the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, possesses some special insight into the “spirit” of the Constitution which sanctions its role in policing state and local governments. From the conservative viewpoint the ill effects of centralization on the states, communities, private associations, religious institutions, and such have come about, not from the legislative action, but from judicial decisions. The Court has outlawed voluntary prayers in the public schools, held most forms of state aid to religious schools as unconstitutional, forced localities to bus children to distant schools in the name of achieving racial integration, invalidated most state and local laws relating to pornography and obscenity, imposed upon the states uniform procedures in criminal cases, set down requirements concerning police-enforcement procedures and, inter alia, substantially altered the degree and kinds of punishment that states may impose upon the criminally guilty. In these and other areas the Court has deprived citizens control over matters that directly affect their daily lives and the character of their communities.[20] There can be no denying that for the past seventy years, a period roughly paralleling the growth of the welfare state, there has emerged an imperial judiciary which has acted in a manner totally oblivious to the principle of subsidiarity.

Paradoxically the Court in its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment has adopted a rigid position, but one which rests on very dubious constitutional grounds. It has, in the main, sought to constitutionalize matters that are best resolved in the political arena, thereby assuming an approach ill-suited to accommodate the values associated with subsidiarity. The modern Court’s reluctance to trust the common constituents on such a wide variety of concerns affecting their communities and quality of life reflects the same rigidity as earlier Courts that adhered to constitutional federalism. Whereas, however, the earlier Courts exercised largely a negative function, the modern Court issues positive commands that have the effect of law.

If the foregoing analysis is essentially correct, what conclusions seem warranted? From our perspective, one seems paramount: Conservatives would do well to reassess their approach to the issues surrounding federalism, in large part because, unlike political federalism, constitutional federalism does not have the capacity to embrace principles that would strike to the heart of the concerns associated with centralization. Concretely, and contrary to what many suppose, constitutional federalism does not embrace the subsidiarity principle. Nor can the subsidiarity principle “operate” effectively within the confines of constitutional federalism. These considerations point to the compelling need for a strategic revision in conservative thinking about the nature of American federalism; a revision sanctioned by the teachings of The Federalist, and vital, if the evils of centralization are to be remedied or prevented.

George W. Carey is Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of In Defense of the Constitution and The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic. He is co-author, with Willmoore Kendall, of The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Additionally he is co-editor of numerous books including The Federalist Papers: The Gideon Edition , The Most Dangerous Branch: The Judicial Assault on American Culture and Community and Tradition. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Winter/Spring 2004).


1. The Federalist (Indianapolis, 2000), 198. The page references within the parentheses in the text are to this edition.
2. U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co., 156 U.S. 1 (1895).
3. Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251, 276 (1918).
4. Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 547 (1935).
5. U.S. v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 554 (1995).
6. For the best defense of constitutional federalism and critique of Court’s decisions that supported political federalism, see Raoul Berger, Federalism (Norman, Okla., 1998). Berger, who originally supported the New Deal policies, came to have second thoughts, arguing that the New Deal programs encroached upon the residual sovereignty of the states. While support for this position, as we have remarked, is to be found in The Federalist, the weight of its argument, in our judgment, inclines towards the political federalism model.
7. Harry V. Jaffa, “The Case for a Stronger National Government,” in A Nation of States (Chicago, 1963), 115. Jaffa’s position shows how the extension of national powers can go under the banner of national security. As we indicate in our discussion, Publius was not unaware of this line of reasoning. How far one should go in situations of national emergency or danger is, of course, a matter of prudence, not constitutional prescription.
8. United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 559 (1995).
9. Robert Nisbet, Quest for Community (San Francisco, 1953), 89. Nisbet subscribes to the view of Alexis de Tocqueville regarding the dangers of centralization.
10. Nisbet, 45.
11. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power (Indianapolis, 1993), 396.
12. Jouvenel, 388.
13. Jouvenel, 415.
14. Wilhelm Roepke, The Moral Foundations of Civil Society (New Brunswick, 1996), 109.
15. For a good deal of my analysis here I am drawing upon Professor Ken Grasso’s splendid, but as yet, unpublished article, “The Common Good, the State and the Principle of Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Thought.”
16. From the papal encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, quoted in Grasso, 10.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. To cite one complexity: When necessary the subsidiarity principle would call upon the national government to assist and help mediating institutions in fulfilling their unique functions. The question arises, particularly in light of the well meaning “Great Society” legislation that has had the unanticipated effect of undermining the family structure, what policies or measures would constitute genuine help?
20. For an excellent treatment of the Court’s encroachment on the Framers’ republican design, see: Lino A Graglia, “How the Constitution Disappeared,” Commentary (February, 1986).

The Essence of Conservatism by Russell Kirk

The Essence of Conservatism
by Russell Kirk
A friend of mine, whom we shall call Miss Worth, fell into a conversation with a neighbor—Mrs. Williams, let us say—who, the day before, had sold a fine old building, long in her family, to be demolished that a lot for used-automobile sales might take its place. Mrs. Williams had certain regrets; but, said she with finality, “You can’t stop progress.” She was startled at Miss Worth’s reply, which was this: “No, often not; but you can try.”
Miss Worth did not believe that Progress, with a Roman P, is a good thing in itself. Progress may be either good or bad, depending on what one is progressing toward. It is quite possible, and not infrequently occurs, that one progresses toward the brink of a precipice. The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time. “To conserve” means “to save.” . . . [Consider] Cupid’s curse:
“They that do change old love for new,
Pray gods they change for worse.”
A conservative is not, by definition, a selfish or a stupid person; instead, he is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving.
Conservatism, indeed, is a word with an old and honorable meaning—but a meaning almost forgotten by Americans until recent years. Abraham Lincoln wished to be known as a conservative. “What is conservatism?” he said. “Is it not preference for the old and tried, over the new and untried?” It is that; and it is also a body of ethical and social beliefs. The word “liberalism,” however, has been in favor among us for two or three decades. Even nowadays, though there are a good many conservatives in both national and state politics, in neither major party do many leading politicians describe themselves as “conservatives.” Paradoxically, the people of the United States became the chief conservative nation of the world at the very time when they had ceased to call themselves conservatives at home.
What with our stern opposition to the radicalism of the Soviets, however, and our national abhorrence of collectivism in all its varieties, a good many Americans now doubt very much whether they care to be called liberals or radicals. The liberals, for a good while, have been drifting leftward toward their radical cousins; and liberalism, in recent years, has come to imply an attachment to the centralized state and the dreary impersonality of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984. Men and women who sense that they are not liberals or radicals are beginning to ask themselves just what they believe, and what they ought to call themselves. The system of ideas opposed to liberalism and radicalism is the conservative political philosophy.
What is conservatism?
Modern conservatism took form about the beginning of the French Revolution, when far-seeing men in England and America perceived that if humanity is to conserve the elements in civilization that make life worth living, some coherent body of ideas must resist the leveling and destructive impulse of fanatic revolutionaries. In England, the founder of true conservatism was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France turned the tide of British opinion and influenced incalculably the leaders of society in the Continent and in America. In the newly established United States, the fathers of the Republic, conservative by training and by practical experience, were determined to shape constitutions which should guide their posterity in enduring ways of justice and freedom. Our American War of Independence had not been a real revolution, but rather a separation from England; statesmen of Massachusetts and Virginia had no desire to turn society upside down. In their writings, especially in the works of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, we find a sober and tested conservatism founded upon an understanding of history and human nature. The Constitution which the leaders of that generation drew up has proved to be the most successful conservative device in all history.
Conservative leaders, ever since Burke and Adams, have subscribed to certain general ideas that we may set down, briefly, by way of definition. Conservatives distrust what Burke called “abstractions”—that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances. They do believe, nevertheless, in the existence of certain abiding truths which govern the conduct of human society. Perhaps the chief principles which have characterized American conservative thought are these:
(1) Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.
(2) Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”
(3) Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality. Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things. The just society requires sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.
(4) Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.
(5) Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs. So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.
(6) The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday.
(7) Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism. Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited. They know that collectivism means the end of real community, substituting uniformity for variety and force for willing cooperation.
(8) In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image. It is a law of politics, as well as of biology, that every living thing loves above all else—even above its own life—its distinct identity, which sets it off from all other things. The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world, nor does he relish the prospect of a world reduced to a single pattern of government and civilization.
(9) Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell. We all are creatures of mingled good and evil; and, good institutions neglected and ancient moral principles ignored, the evil in us tends to predominate. Therefore the conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes. He does not believe that, by power of positive law, we can solve all the problems of humanity. We can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect. When progress is achieved, it is through prudent recognition of the limitations of human nature.
(10) Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm, probably it will be disastrous. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body. But American conservatives endeavor to reconcile the growth and alteration essential to our life with the strength of our social and moral traditions. With Lord Falkland, they say, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” They understand that men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.
Conservatism, then, is not simply the concern of the people who have much property and influence; it is not simply the defense of privilege and status. Most conservatives are neither rich nor powerful. But they do, even the most humble of them, derive great benefits from our established Republic. They have liberty, security of person and home, equal protection of the laws, the right to the fruits of their industry, and opportunity to do the best that is in them. They have a right to personality in life, and a right to consolation in death. Conservative principles shelter the hopes of everyone in society. And conservatism is a social concept important to everyone who desires equal justice and personal freedom and all the lovable old ways of humanity. Conservatism is not simply a defense of “capitalism.” (“Capitalism,” indeed, is a word coined by Karl Marx, intended from the beginning to imply that the only thing conservatives defend is vast accumulations of private capital.) But the true conservative does stoutly defend private property and a free economy, both for their own sake and because these are means to great ends.
Those great ends are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man. For the radical collectivism of our age is fiercely hostile to any other authority: modern radicalism detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions. Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation. Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Adapted from The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1957). Copyright © 1957 by Russell Kirk, renewed © 2002 by Annette Kirk. Used by permission. http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/essence-1957/

Economy and Transcendence: The Nature of the Market and the Social Encyclicals by Ralph E. Ancil


Economy and Transcendence:  The Nature of the Market and

the Social Encyclicals by Ralph E. Ancil

July 31, 2012  
In this paper I argue one cannot be a Christian and libertarian with any pretense of consistency. The argument comes in three major parts: the theological, the logical and the historical. The theological argument identifies and examines the significance of the concept of transcendence underlying three major social encyclicals that deal with economic matters, Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus. Notwithstanding obvious differences and discontinuities due in part to changed conditions or changes in emphasis or changes in the historical circumstances that occasion the writing of these papers, the concept of transcendence remains the common cornerstone of all three documents.
To reinforce the encyclicals and their theological argument the paper digresses into the works of what may be called “humane writers” who have dealt with economic and social and political questions from within the conservative, Christian tradition. These include economist Wilhelm Roepke of the German Ordo-liberal tradition; English professor Richard Weaver of the American tradition of Southern Agrarians; G.K. Chesterton, author, journalist and humorist of the English Distributists; and the well-known C.S. Lewis.
The remaining two main parts deal with economic theory and business experience. In the second section, the logical arguments from within the discipline of economics will be discussed to show the inconsistency of “” views in theory. And in the third and final section, historical examples are given to show their deleterious consequences in practice.
The Encyclicals: The Theologic Argument
If we believe the economic world can basically be divided up into two pigeon holes only, namely, an economic policy that either affirms a laissez-fairist approach or one that is more or less socialist/welfarist, on-the-road-to-communism approach, then the encyclicals make no sense. They seem to be all over the policy board. They affirm private property but they also affirm public authority and government intervention. They deny the validity of socialism and yet they deny the validity of the individualist ideology too; as we read in Quadragesimo Anno, for example, we are “to avoid the reefs of individualism and collectivism…” (para. 110). What, then, exactly are they affirming? The answer is insoluble unless we are willing to expand our theoretical world to include at least three pigeon holes. The third hole is not a halfway house or mixture of the extremes on a spectrum defined by two theoretical positions but rather an alternative faithful to its own set of principles. That is what Roepke meant when he spoke of the “third way” and of a “humane economy.”
The reason for this third approach is rooted in the traditional, orthodox insistence on the importance of transcendence and the recognition that both other alternatives, while making good observations and contributions to policy, while sometimes showing remarkable insight, ultimately fail because they reject transcendence in favor of a false immanentization which, crudely put, is idolatry. Thus, the laissez-fairist rejects any form of government intervention to the economy because the market system is thought to be complete in itself and not to need an external reference, an outside support to validate its claims or judge its actions or results. Hence we receive the familiar assurances about the “automatic harmony of interests” of historical liberalism. The error of the libertarian, as William F. Campbell reminds us, is that he strains all social reality through one principle, the competitive market.
A corresponding error characterizes the thought of socialists/welfarists, or communists, who assure us that government will achieve perfection here and now through its actions, e.g., equality of opportunity, or better education for all, based on humanist values without reference to higher ideals or religious teaching.
In both these cases their adherents are also guilty of a modern form of “gnosticism” which Eric Voegelin defined as the belief in “immanent perfection achieved through an act of man.” Man is sufficient unto himself to achieve his goals here and now in this world. Direction comes from within the material and human world only. There is no higher world that needs to be referred to.
In contrast, the economic aspects of social encyclicals are founded on the truth of transcendence, that is, the recognition that this world is not all, there is a higher reality man must be aware of even as he acts in this world, and that as a by-product of so doing, his efforts will be more fulfilling and enduring. Let us sample the relevant documents.
In Rerum Novarum we read:
We cannot understand and evaluate mortal things rightly unless the mind reflects upon the other life, the life which is immortal. If this other life indeed were taken away, the form and true notion of the right would immediately perish; nay, this entire world would become an enigma insoluble to man. Therefore, what we learn from nature itself as our teacher is also a Christian dogma and on it the whole system and structure of religion rests, as it were, on its main foundation, namely, that, when we have left this life, only then shall we truly begin to live. (para. 33)
Similarly in Quadragesimo Anno, the battle against immanentism is strongly indicated, when Pius the XI states:
Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualistic economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self-direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle. (para. 88, emphasis added)
And finally, in Centesimus Annus we find three strong statements rejecting the immanentism of market idolatry:
Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities. A striking example of artificial consumption contrary to the health and dignity of the human person, and certainly not easy to control, is the use of drugs. Widespread drug use is a sign of a serious malfunction in the social system; it also implies a materialistic and, in a certain sense, destructive `reading’ of human needs….Drugs, as well as pornography and other forms of consumerism which exploit the frailty of the weak, tend to fill the resulting spiritual void. (para. 36)
If economic life is absolutized, if the production and consumption of goods become the centre of social life and society’s only value, not subject to any other value, the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone. (para. 39)
Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages…Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an `idolatry’ of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities. (para. 40)
It is difficult to imagine a more forceful and systematic rejection of the immanentism with its assumption of self-containment or self-sufficiency that underlies the libertarian view. One is reminded of Goedel’s proof in mathematics that such systems, in fact, are impossible. (Stanley Jaki makes a similar argument in his treatment of the rise of modern science in his The Road of Science and the Ways to God.) It also reminds one of the Gospel paradox that he who would lose his soul will save it but he who would save his soul for transcendent truth will surely lose it.
Some Humane Writers
To reinforce this theological perspective one may sample briefly the writings of authors concerned about the economy who, because they were steeped in the traditions of the Christianized West, were able to bring deep insights about these matters. The German Ordo-liberal economist Wilhelm Roepke explains in his classic study The Social Crisis of Our Time the errors of historical liberalism and laissez-faire economics. They deluded themselves into thinking a sound idea, be it democracy for government or free markets for the economy, can be absolutized without becoming self-destructive. As he explains this error of historical liberalism as it applies to democracy:
One of the chief concommitants of this delusion is the framing of the liberal principle in such an absolute form that its enemies profit by it too, and are, in the name of freedom, given every conceivable opportunity to put an end to liberal democracy…It is obvious that this absolute tolerance even towards intolerance, this intransigent dogmatism of the liberals, which gives a free hand to all trouble makers and agitators, thereby condemning itself to death with open eyes, must ultimately reduce `pure democracy’ to the defenseless victim of anti-liberalism, to a sort of gambling club whose rules include their non-observance. (p. 50)
So far as applying this point to the economy goes, one recalls the removal of all anti-monopoly laws in 1824 by the British government.
C.S. Lewis makes a similar point when he has one devil, Screwtape, advising his nephew Wormwood on the proper handling of humans. Relying on Aristotle, he states: 
Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether `democratic behaviour’ means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they ever did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same….Even if they don’t read Aristotle…you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. (The Screwtape Letters, pp. 161-2, 169-70)
Like not mowing over the cord of an electric lawnmower, there simply are some constraints necessary to preserve continuity of action or of being which legitimize or promote the other, derivative freedoms involved.
This is also the conclusion of other Ordo-liberal economists. Walter Eucken expressed it best when he said that “`what the experience of laissez-faire goes to prove is that the economic system cannot be left to organize itself'” (The Social Market Economy, p.109). Certain basic restraints on economic freedom were recognized as logical, as a “`legitimisation of economic freedom in order to prevent this freedom from destroying its own prerequisites.'” (p. 149)
Therefore, when writing on the conditions and limits of the market, Roepke insists that “…the ultimate moral support of the market economy lies outside the market. Market and competition are far from generating their moral prerequisites autonomously. This is the error of liberal immanentism. These prerequisites must be furnished from outside…” (A Humane Economy, p. 126). This harmonizes with John Paul II’s statement that “prior to the logic of fair exchange of goods” (CA, pr. 34) certain relationships and values exist that take precedence over market mechanisms, freedoms and contracts.
In his widely read and controversial little book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver spoke of the shift from the older Christian view to the one that would be the basis of the modern world, a shift that occurred in the fourteenth century with the rise of nominalism. Our entire world view changed including our view of man, nature and the economy. Regarding nature, that is creation, for example, he writes: “Whereas nature had formerly been regarded as imitating a transcendent model and as constituting an imperfect reality, it was henceforth looked upon as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior” (p. 4).
In his last book, Visions of Order, Weaver looked at the false immanentization in the area of art and technology. And it is not hard to extend his analysis, mutatis mutandis, to include that of economies or economic theories. He explains:
The source of the evil we are endeavoring to isolate thus lies in a false immanentization. When its products and expressive forms are no longer judged by their referential relations but take on a kind of inner authority and an inevitability, they begin to encroach upon other sensibilities which have their own legitimate roles to play in the life of the spirit. (p. 234)
Wherever a culture tends to institutionalize and divinize its creations, it begins to levy an excessive tribute upon the human beings for whom these things exist. It falls into the temptation of thinking that there is some principle of immanence in them which justifies extortion, in many different forms, of the people. (p. 235)
When, therefore, the institutions seemed threatened…they were given immanent authority and a tribute of sacrifice was offered to them. What had been created in response to the human spirit and had referential justification began to be autotelic and make its own demands. The forms broke away from the informing impulse and set up an autarchy. (p.235-6)
In his The Outline of Sanity, Chesterton presents an entire social criticism based on the imperative of transcendence. This world is not self-contained but must refer to something beyond itself for meaning and validity. And yet the secret of success in this world lies in grasping the transcendent. He writes near the end of that book: “And that same mysterious and to some divided voice, which alone tells that we have here no abiding city, is the only voice which within the limits of this world can build up cities that abide” (p. xx).
The libertarian – like the socialist – is in part enthralled by the aesthetic appeal of the intellectual properties of formal economic and political theories and as a consequence is similarly willing to sacrifice the lives of others on its alter for the sake of its purity. That is the meaning and the source of these vehement objections to any form of intervention from outside. The economic system is thought to be complete or perfect within itself and therefore any intervention must necessarily reduce this completion or perfection and so is to be shunned.
The Logical Argument of Economics
In conventional, and especially laissez-faire, economics the above theological insights are neglected in favor of a theory that tries to make self-interest the exclusive basis of market action. Yet without appealing to these insights, it can still be shown that such a position is weak on logical grounds. For example, it should be obvious that if “values” and choices are all arbitrary, subjective preferences, then so is the desire for or choice of a free market. And yet to admit the existence of objective values that are trans-economic or meta-economic is to admit the contingency and incompleteness of the market’s existence and structure and ultimately the possibility that principled intervention may be necessary. Indeed, though there are ways to hedge on this, the mere existence of objective values and the market’s dependent nature, necessarily limits and qualifies its operation in any logically sound and consistent economic theory. The dilemma for the conventional economist, then, and especially for the laissez-fairist, is that the market can be defended on the basis of those objective values which at the same time necessarily delimit and circumscribe it, while any theory that absolutizes the market by making it perfectly self-sufficient, destroys itself logically.
The logical difficulty in libertarian thinking is also seen in a particular form of the fallacy of composition: what’s true for one is thought to be true for all, or what is true in the short run is true in the long run, etc. So the libertarian thinks a collective good (such as national defense, law enforcement, etc.) is ipso facto an individual good and looks for ways in which the individual’s rational self-interest will provide the collective good as if it were a private one. An example, given to this author while working in a prominent think-tank in Washington a few years ago, ran something like this: it is evil for the government to have a strategic petroleum reserve (a collective good); private oil companies should be able to provide for this need under the profit system (as if it were an individual good) and if they can’t, then we shouldn’t have it. That there might be a need for such a reserve but no adequate private incentive to provide it, was simply unthinkable. Such dogmatists also spend time trying to invent schemes for private armies, private law courts, private police, and so on.
As a second example, consider the argument some make that if an individual wanted to live like Roepke outlines and have a garden for growing his own foodstuffs – or Chesterton and the English distributists outline, or as the Southern agrarians envision – there is nothing to prevent him from doing so under a genuinely capitalistic system, while others remain free to live in a different manner. (Implicitly those making this argument are saying their preference is objectively better.) But obviously in a parallel case even a libertarian couldn’t live his own life-style in a socialist society and in fact would strain to change the laws to compel a libertarian one. An entire way of life, including a libertarian one, is by its nature a collective, not a private, good and its implementation is costly in the sense that other ways of life must be given up; those who prefer the alternatives lose. Ultimately, the libertarian is asking us to accept a vision that disparages collective goods – a vision which is itself a collective good. Can a Cretan say Cretan’s always lie?
More broadly, what the secular economist really wants is a system where each one looks out for his own self-interest while not internalizing in his calculations the self-interest of others, that is, not manipulating them for his own use. They want the self-interest of others respected, like private property. But the obvious problem is that respect is not primarily a matter of self-interest. It is sometimes in one’s interest to violate the property of others. But respect is just the opposite of pure self-interest since it is a limiting of the will – and thus of one’s interest – for some other, higher reason; it is in fact a form of piety. A self-interest-alone policy means expanding the ego while respect means limiting it. The former is limited at best only externally by the expanding egos of others while the latter concept is a moral check originating within the individual. Whence, then, comes this respect? It does not arise from an exclusive consideration of self-interest but implies a transcending source of value lying outside the domain of mere self-interest.
It is appropriate perhaps to emphasize here that we can’t know our own self-interest by considering self-itself only. Rather, we do not know what is in our self-interest until we know something more than the self. Only when meaning is found is life worthy of the trouble to know and promote what is in one’s own interest. Roepke liked to say, he who knows economics only, does not even know that well. Similarly, knowing or having a consciousness and pre-occupation only of the self, is inadequate for individual well-being and for any theory premised on this assumption. In Christian thought, to know the self fully requires consideration of the ends transcending the self and man, of his ultimate end and good which is God. This knowledge is necessary not only to order individual goods but to order the broader goods of public policy. Strictly speaking, self-interest becomes unintelligible or meaningless when it is absolutized and made comprehensive, exhausting all human action or behavior and, in fact, becomes pure selfishness.
Some people, of course, may object that we should distinguish between “self-interest” and “selfishness.” This is a valid point but not one secular economists are entitled to make for two reasons. First, total or complete self-interest is selfishness, for with nothing to transcend the self only selfishness remains. (Here, too, the libertarian commits the fallacy of composition: what’s true for one isolated or qualified statement, namely where some self-interested behavior is valid, is true for the statement when generalized or unqualified, i.e., when everything becomes mere self-interest.) Second, such economists’ own insincerity in the application of this maxim makes it a distinction without a difference.  For the expression “self-interest” is preferred because it allows room to imply the existence of non-self-interested or charitable behavior. But if everywhere we turn for examples of such altruistic behavior, that altruism is denied, then we have universalized self-interest to the point where this implication of transcendence is effectively excluded. In this manner libertarians may still point to the option of virtue that is theoretically allowed in their system of limited government, but by implicitly denying transcendent truth, they eliminate the motivation to exercise it. Such is the effect of what may be called the laissez-fairist’s “doctrine of inescapable selfishness.”
That this is no exaggeration, let us refer to the guru of laissez-faire thinking, Ludwig von Mises. In his book Human Action he plainly states: “What a man does is always aimed at an improvement of his own state of satisfaction. In this sense – and in no other [i.e., without making arbitrary subjective value judgements praising or condemning this fact] – we are free to use the term selfishness and to emphasize that action is necessarily always selfish. Even an action directly aiming at the improvement of other people’s condition is selfish” (emphasis added, p. 242; cf. pp. 499, 677, 735).
This egocentric subjectivism is inseparably connected with his moral relativism. In speaking of “the allegedly eternal and absolute values,” Mises asserts: “There is…no such thing as a perennial standard of what is just and what is unjust” and that the “idea of natural law is quite arbitrary” (p.720). Not surprisingly, he concludes: “It is… the social system which determines what should be deemed right and wrong. There is neither right nor wrong outside the social nexus” (p. 721) – an interesting view for a Nazi refugee. Yet for this reason – the absence of any objective standard of truth – all economic intervention by government is arbitrary, including that envisioned by the social market economists (p. 723) which includes Roepke. Yes, even the evils of free drug use are to be preferred over government efforts to stop it (pp. 733-4). The only test for policy is, not truth or values, but social expediency which is apparently based on what is taken to be the only rational and objective elements of the subject, namely, the means or procedures to accomplish subjectively chosen ends. And the economy best suited for this condition is itself a tool: totally free, Simon-pure, capitalism.
Other economists are not so confidently dogmatic and instead try to refute the charge that economics broadly teaches selfishness by framing the question in terms of costs and benefits. The authors of one economic college textbook (Gwartney and Stroup in Macroeconomics, Private and Public Choice) insist economics claims only that: “The choices of both the humanitarian and the egocentric individual will be influenced by changes in personal costs and benefits.” But they go on to argue both will be more likely to try to save a small child from drowning in a three-foot swimming pool than in the swift current near Niagara Falls. Why? Because “the latter alternative is more costly than the former.” They conclude: “Economics deals with people as they are – not as we would like to remake them. Should people act more charitably? Perhaps so. But this is not the subject matter of economics” (p.9).
But do people really think the way these authors suggest? Are decisions of this kind really done in terms of (subjective) costs and benefits for the individual alone? Or is there something more to understanding human action?
While it is certainly true that people are self-interested and are affected by costs and benefits, this type of analysis is incomplete if not entirely inappropriate. To argue, as these authors do, that they accept people as they are – not as they ought to be – is misleading. That is like writers of cheap fiction who like to show every private and intimate aspect of life under the title of being “realistic”. The effect, of course, is to promote the baser instincts of man which they so implicitly accept. Similarly, constantly show-casing the selfish side of man in the name of realism promotes that selfishness. Realism would also require us to accept the altruistic aspect of human nature.
Curiously, the authors only consider costs, not the benefits, which influence people’s choices. One can only conjecture why this omission is allowed. If they were to deal with the issue of “benefits” – always a difficult aspect of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) – they would be faced with two possibilities: either (1) there is a world of objective “oughtness” or values, in which case the proposed action is an obligation (you ought to help your neighbor) and is in some sense still a cost; or (2) no such world exists objectively and the choice of action is consequently evaluated by purely subjective preferences, no different than choosing between flavors of ice cream.
If the first case is true, it contradicts the aim of the method. The very purpose of cost-benefit analysis is to allow the individual to evaluate whether a proposed course of action is worth pursuing or not. It is optional. But if there is a world of moral obligation, that is, a world of the morally non-optional, then CBA is inappropriate. Why try to see whether or not it is rational to pursue a line of action when that line of action is obligatory? Choice between options that carry no moral obligation, like flavors of ice cream, and choice between obeying an obligation or not, are not the same things. And importing the concept of CBA which is literally appropriate to the one but only metaphorically true for the other constitutes that very smoke-and-mirrors reasoning that makes us lose sight of the subtlety and important differences in human action and motivation.
On the other hand, if they pursue the latter course, their point, that economics does not exclude altruistic behavior or require selfish behavior, would be lost. They would in effect be arguing that the reason I act altruistically is because I want to maximize my utility – which again tends to teach the inescapable selfishness they implicitly accept but explicitly deny. So altruism and its benefits can be quietly dropped from analysis as much as from practice.
The authors assume a charitable posture toward charity but its sincerity is belied by their method. Theoretical recognition of the possible existence of charity as an objective value, while being treated in analysis as a mere subjective preference, is not good enough. We cannot be charitable to charity, that is, to the precept of charity, or any other objective value. We can only do it justice by giving it its do – which is obedience for the individual and recognition in analysis for the social scientist. To be realistic in economic science and theory, it is not enough to recognize that some people may believe, subjectively, that objective values exist and treat that belief as another subjective preference and so imply there is nothing transcending the world of subjectivity. That means understanding that any utility or benefit derived from a charitable or altruistic act is merely an accidental by-product achieved precisely by the willingness to set it aside in the name of higher values. Here the logical and theological overlap: to save one’s soul is to lose it and to lose it for the transcendent reality is to find it.
Indeed, if what is seemingly an altruistic act is only really the outcome of calculations based on an all-absorbing self-interest, if no room is allowed for a pre-rational but objective realm of “oughtness,” then even CBA, the evaluation of personal costs and benefits, becomes meaningless. And the same result casts doubt on the validity of an economic theory and science that insist there is no disinterested pursuit of truth but whose results must be the product of personal (subjective) costs and benefits of the relevant social scientists. If everything is optional, there is no truth or meaning, even for economics. (Welcome to the world of junk science!) The world consists only of the arbitrarily choosing self which nothing transcends. Nihilism gives “freedom” in proportion as meaning is eliminated. But because laissez-fairists, in their penchant for committing the fallacy of composition, can’t see this, they believe that expanding choice will substitute for truth. This is the essence of the laissez-faire advocacy of the free market economy. But the reality is that the meaningfulness of an alternative is reduced, as its range is increased. Choice is meaningful only in a world of unchosen truth, and people are starved for meaning – not choices.
The choice of framework or point of departure for analysis, the self and what it wants or has a right to and departures from the self, prejudices the analysis in favor of egotistic calculations of the CBA kind. If economic analysis were to begin with altruism and duty to others, and then consider egotistic behaviour as a departure from this norm, thus reversing the secular order, it would put quite a different colour on the matter. One could likewise ask if people should act more or less egotistically: an interesting issue, perhaps, but not the subject matter of economics.
Of course, one can hear the cries from the gallery of secular economists screaming “Foul!” This approach would be significantly unrealistic, say they; such a reversal would be a phantom because it would not do justice to the fact that egocentric calculations are by far the dominant type of motivation in human economic action, etc.
But this example is not quite so hypothetical or unrealistic as it appears. In the New Testament we are told to look out for each other’s interest not just our own, indeed to prefer the interest of the other party over our own. Even the injunction to work to provide for ourselves is understandable this way, namely, in order not to be a burden on others. And while this mainly applies to fellow believers, in the context of the overall teaching of charity even for our enemies, it cannot be confined to believers alone. The habit of charity doesn’t stop at the church door.
How realistic would we think a psychologist who sought to explain dreams only in terms of other dreams and systematically excluded the data of wakefulness as having no proper place in his analysis? Or if he sought to explain the data of wakefulness in terms of the dreams or still worse treated wakefulness as nothing but another dream? Clearly, no matter how strong our dreams are, we explain their lower reality in terms of the higher reality of consciousness and not vice versa. Similarly, for the self-interest motive to be meaningful, it must be placed in the “wakeful” context of a higher reality.
But unfortunately, it is one of the fallacies of laissez-fairism, as well as of conventional economics, to overestimate the egocentric aspect of human nature to the detriment of the higher side. The reason such inefficient economic systems as Soviet Communism and National Socialism could last as long as they did is not merely because of oppression and fear, but because they appealed to the humanitarian side of human nature, to the desire to find meaning in the losing of the egocentric self in some higher cause, however misconceived, a need not fulfilled by materialistic, self-centered capitalism. As Roepke himself rightly pointed out in an endnote titled, “The overestimation of self-interest as a sociological motive”:
Collectivism has proved that men can be controlled and moved not only by promises but even more by demands on and appeals to their capacity for sacrifice and devotion. It has also shown what tremendous forces can be released by altruism, enthusiasm and the struggle for a supra-personal goal, and the rest of the world has by no means yet drawn all the conclusions and learned all the lessons from this discovery. (Social Crisis, pp. 26-27)
And actually, as he indicates in A Humane Economy, unlimited self-assertion is “an infallible way of destroying the free economy by morally blind exaggeration of its principle” (p. 128).
Whether genuine altruism is trivialized by not being deemed worthy of inclusion in analysis or absorbed as merely another form of self-interest, the result is the same: a furthering of that demoralizing tendency toward commercialization of life which in turn furthers social and economic corruption but which is compatible with the egocentric model of secularized economic science. In this sense, capitalism, and perhaps economic science, have been their own worst enemies.
Let us not be deceived by those analyses that pretend to fairness but which really smuggle in moral reductionism in the guise of hard-headed thinking. It is as unrealistic as it is unscientific for the economist to ignore the data of altruistic human motivation and claim it is no part of his science. To argue that altruistic behavior is not denied but simply doesn’t form a part of legitimate science sounds increasingly like a placebo thrown to people who rightly suspect its implicit moral reductionism. Such glib and facile examples are at best disappointing and rather than dispel common folk’s doubts about what economists teach, tend rather to reinforce them, all the more so as people intuitively grasp that the doctrine of inescapable selfishness when put into practice is a form of tyranny.
Instead, logic and realism requires us to admit certain complexities of human thought such as the fact that people often accept certain values as objective even when they do not scrupulously adhere to them, or fail to act in accord with their own highest preferences; and that people do not always act in their own long-term self-interest. They demand that we admit altruism often means ignoring costs rather than counting them, and failure to incorporate this fact robs economic theory of important insights. Logic and realism require us to reject the preference economists have for procedures and means rather than ends and final states. The procedures of competitive markets, and rational calculation of costs and benefits, must be steadfastly linked to the ends of man if economics and the economy are to be humane and meaningful.
Historical Examples
In actual practice, the system of “self-interest-alone” breaks down as soon as people realize they can advance their own immediate self-interest by manipulating the self-interest of others. When objective values and ideals are chased away or ignored, the moral vacuum is filled by an expanding egotism. The lack of inner discipline, those inner moral checks which Burke speaks of, not to mention the outer checks whose absence also facilitates the free flow of goods, are dissipated. People litter and practice discourteous driving habits. The manipulation of government policy between congressmen and lobbyists also becomes more frequent (which reduces incentives to work and savings and invites still more policy manipulation). Its consequences are also manifest in the historical deformities that arose at the same time the market economy arose thus confusing the essentially good nature of the market with the historically conditioned situation where political and economic power unjustifiably obtained, caused enormous, unnecessary suffering among the people of England and elsewhere.
Can only politicians be wicked and not entrepreneurs? Not likely. A good economy and a good government go together. But if there is widespread corruption in government, there is likely to be the same in the economy. Therefore, the glee which some feel in a recitation of the wickedness of politicians and the folly of their policies is short-sighted and superficial. A free economy like a free government requires that the individuals involved all accept certain axioms that will, in addition to prices, harmonize their actions. This is all the more true when we see that the market economy especially offers numerous opportunities for sin (exploitation and opportunism). Freedom presupposes virtue.
But to keep things simple, we may illustrate a few pointed cases to show that the false immanentization of laissez-faire, and respect for private property, often don’t harmonize and to counter-balance those laissez-fairists who thrill at the recitation of the evils of government policies by showing the unethical practices of businessmen as part of the historical experience of the self-interest-alone school. Consider the following rather commonly known examples:
1. Richard Arkwright, often considered the father of industrialism, actually stole his main invention, the spinning machine, from one Thomas Highs, an inventor with whom he was for years acquainted. Highs sued in court and won (c. June, 1785).
2. Samuel Slater stole the Arkwright “invention” by memorizing all the parts and emigrated to America to set up shop here (c. late 1780s).
3. Joseph Peavey invented the lumberman’s cant hook but it, too, was stolen from him (c. 1860).
4. William Thomas stole Elias Howe’s share of the English royalties for the latter’s idea of the sewing machine (c. 1846).
5. In the early oil drilling days, during and shortly after the Civil War, caravans of oil in barrels loaded on wagons were driven over farms in defiance of trespass laws to make new roads. Teamsters would crack their whips at landowners who tried to stop them. In a similar vein, the railroads tried every trick of obstruction and destruction against the later-installed oil pipelines. They dug them up just as the teamsters had done.
6. Overdrilling with derricks was disastrous but voluntary efforts to ration oil extraction failed and government regulation was necessary.
7. In mining, water was used in environmentally damaging ways (e.g. hydraulic mining using nozzles) but this method also damaged downstream farms from the silt it loosened.
8. Voluntary associations to protect timber stands were only partially successful because of the classic free rider problem and state government (state foresters) was needed to enforce compliance with the regulations.
9. The attitude of [mostly 19th century] lumbermen was to “cut out and move on.” They considered forests an inexhaustible and free resource that, of course, required no tending or management or conservation efforts. The attitude was that maximum production meant constant production and was driven in part by the need to pay off the debts incurred to purchase the newer sawmill technologies. The result was often overproduction and cut-throat competition.
They were also often hostile toward private or public ownership of forests. Such property was regularly attacked, trespassed and vandalized. Fraud, robbery and sometimes murder were involved. The reason for this appalling record according to one researcher was the general belief in “laissez faire, rugged individualism, and the legend of inexhaustibility.”
10. Similarly, stockmen of both sheep- and cattle-raising insisted upon “open access” pasturage and resisted efforts at privatization or regulation.
11. Shippers in the last century so overloaded their vessels as to endanger both crew and cargo in the fierce competition for profits. Governments had to interfere to impose restrictions on vessel drafts to insure safety.
All this may be laughingly put off as entrepreneurial high spirits but we may seriously question the stability of an economic system where such practices are common and so become socially harmful.
That instability with its harmful social effects is perhaps more evident, not in the practices cited above, but in the ideology of unlimited economic growth based on modern technology. British economist E.J. Mishan in his book Economic Myths and the Mythology of Economics gives us thought-provoking examples in this regard. For instance, in considering the problem of drugs he points out that German scientists working for the Bayer Company thought they had found something non-addictive that would be useful for treating morphine addiction which was highly touted in the medical journals. It took ten years for them to discover that this new drug under the trade name “heroin” was just as bad or worse. Later, German scientists in World War II discovered methadone which was also at first thought to be helpful for heroin addicts. This view was reversed a few years later when it was found also to be addictive and dangerous. Not knowing how to undo this evil, many laissez-fairists want to legalize drugs. They reason that strong enforcement against these drugs will only give us a police state. Waving the objection that such enforcement does not necessarily constitute a totalitarian government, we may rightly be concerned that the alternative may well be a welfare state as more and more people suffer from drug addiction.
Indeed, if we are to worry about a police state there are other possibilities which many laissez-fairists insouciantly support.  We might be concerned, as Mishan argues, that the additional growth of government caused by civilian and military uses of nuclear power is worrisome. Or we may ponder the rise of computer technology that gives such power to the centralized government that we face being monitored in where we seek medical treatment and where we work and similar applications that threaten our liberties (e.g., laser readings of bar codes to assess tail-pipe emissions but which would also allow the government to monitor where one travels). It gives power as well to large corporations to monitor their employees as well as to illegal uses that aid criminals, especially organized crime, which in turn calls for more government activism and consequent loss of individual liberty. This applies also to the more recent developments over the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons to crackpot dictators and criminal organizations. All of this “may be an unavoidable consequence of the very direction and pattern of economic growth” (p.137).Further, Mishan gives a Burkean argument: “Thus as the moral order upon which any viable civilization has to be founded is eroded in the name of personal emancipation, so in the name of security must the state expand its powers. In effect, as repressive mechanisms internal to the individual are scrapped, repressive mechanisms external to him have to be forged. The permissive society, it may be inferred, is precursor to the totalitarian state.” (p.161) We may conclude with him that the consistent application of the laissez-fairist, or libertarian, ideology leads to the totalitarian state and therefore “the libertarian economist cannot consistently claim also to be a pro-growth economist.” (p. 138) The importance of transcendence is implied when he rightly observes “…a moral consensus that is to be enduring and effective is the product only of a general acceptance in its divine origin. A moral order, that is, can rest secure only on religious foundations. It cannot be raised on humanist principles, or on enlightened sweet reason…” (p. 160).
Finally, one may argue that the laissez-faire policy contributes to the growth of the welfare state for reasons other than those mentioned above. By making true charity impossible, the transcending of one’s own self-interest, they add to our demoralization, to that “sinking in of the moral being” which Yeats mentions, and this in turn reduces the desire to act charitably privately [since there is no difference between this form of self-interest and any other, people tend to choose the “other” – immediate selfishness – a difference in behaviour that suggests a difference in nature after all] which in turn adds to demands for government welfare programs; and also creates a passive acquiescence to government expansion, including welfare expansion, which again reinforces the lessening of private charity. Special interest and the growth of government are the result of libertarianism: everyone including politicians seeks his own immediate interest, not that of the common good or of social justice. They are simply being good political entrepreneurs putting the laissez-faire ideology into practice in government.
Would it not be better, then, in formulating policy to take a humbler view of matters and remember that the evils of big government are only part of the story? The evils of the big corporation, of the ego-centric economy in practice, and of the laissez-fairist and unlimited growth ideologies are also part of our modern experience. 
Our choice of political economy is clear: one rooted either in secular immanentism or traditional transcendence. For all their talk of freedom and human dignity which advocates of the former proclaim, the ultimate effect of immanentism as shown above is quite inhumane. This conclusion is perhaps most fittingly illustrated by an account told to this author by the executive vice – president of a non – profit educational organization. In the early sixties, he reported, he was horrified to hear a prominent “conservative” economist argue that the federal government’s ban of thalidomide was unnecessary because eventually the market would have stopped the production and sale of the drug anyway. Of course, the key word is “eventually” since time would be needed. During that time, how many children would have been born with these serious birth defects while we waited for the market – eventually – to correct the matter? This economist was willing to sacrifice, literally, real humans to keep the purity of his intellectual system intact in practice as well as in theory. For this reason alone one can’t be libertarian and Christian. Unless we are willing to explore other possibilities, such as the humane economy of Roepke, Chesterton, or Weaver, with an uncompromising insistence on the fullness of our humanity in the economic world, our economy will become increasingly inhumane. We will sacrifice even more than we are doing – actual human lives – on the Moloch of the market
[This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil, originally published in 1998 by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute. Read the series introductory essay here.] 
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