MOST POLITICAL DISCUSSION nowadays moves in ruts the discussants don't even
seem to be aware of. They talk about rights, freedom, the Constitution, foreign
policy, the budget, all sorts of disparate things they never seem to get in
It may help if we step back from politics a bit.
The main political line of division in the United States is between people we
call liberals and people we call conservatives. The debate between them has been
described in various ways; I would like to offer one of my own, based not so
much on theory as on personal introspection.
At certain moments I find myself enjoying life in a certain way. I may be
alone, or with friends, or with my family, or even among strangers. Beautiful
weather always helps; the more trees, the better. Early morning or evening is
the best time. Maybe someone says something funny. And while everyone laughs,
there is a sort of feeling that surges up under the laughter, like a wave
rocking a rowboat, that tells you that this is the way life should be.
Moments like that don't come every day, aren't predictable, and can't very
well be charted. But the main response they inspire is something like gratitude:
after all, one can't exactly deserve them. One can only be prepared for them.
But they do come.
This may seem a thousand miles from politics, and such moments rarely have
anything to do with politics. But that is just the point. Samuel Johnson says:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
But the same is true of all that human hearts enjoy. Laws and kings can't
produce our happiest hours, though in our time they do more to prevent them than
"To be happy at home," Johnson also remarks, "is the end of all human
endeavor." That is a good starting-point for politics, just because it is
outside politics. I often get the feeling that what is wrong with political
discussion in general is that it is dominated by narrow malcontents who take
their bearings not from images of health and happiness but from statistical
suffering. They always seem to want to "eliminate" something--poverty, racism,
war--instead of settling for fostering other sorts of things it is beyond their
power actually to produce.
Man doesn't really create anything. We don't sit godlike above the world,
omniscient and omnipotent. We find ourselves created, placed somehow in the
midst of things that we here before us, related to them in particular ways. if
we can't delight in our situation, we are off on the wrong foot.
More and more I find myself thinking that a conservative is someone who
regards this world with a basic affection, and wants to appreciate it as it is
before he goes on to the always necessary work of making some rearrangements.
Richard Weaver says we have no right to reform the world unless we cherish some
aspects of it; and that is the attitude of many of the best conservative
thinkers. Burke says that a constitution ought to be the subject of enjoyment
rather than altercation. (I wish the American Civil Liberties Union would take
his words to heart.)
I find a certain music in conservative writing that I never find in that of
liberals. Michael Oakeshott speaks of "affection," "attachment," "familiarity,"
"happiness"; and my point is not the iname one that these are very nice things,
but that Oakeshott thinks of them as considerations pertinent to political
thinking. He knows what normal life is, what normal activities are, and his
first thought is that politics should not disturb them.
Chesterton (who hated the conservatism of his own day) has good remarks in
this vein. "It is futile to discuss reform," he says, "without reference to
form." He complains of "the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the
normal to the abnormal," and he criticizes socialism on the ground that "it is
rather shocking that we have to treat a normal nation as something exceptional,
like a house on fire or a shipwreck."
"He who is unaware of his ignorance," writes Richard Whately, "will only be
misled by his knowledge." And that is the trouble with the liberal, the
socialist, the Communist, and a dozen other species of political cranks who have
achieved respectability in our time: they disregard so much of what is constant
and latent in life. They fail to notice; they fail to appreciate.
We can paraphrase Chesterton's remark about reforming without reference to
form by saying it is futile to criticize without first appreciating. The
conservative is bewildered by the comprehensive dissatisfaction of people who
are always heedlong about "reform" (as they conceive it) or are even eager to
"build a new society." What, exactly, is wrong with society as it is already?
This isn't just a defiant rhetorical question; it needs an answer. We don't have
the power to change everything, and it may not be such a bright idea to try;
there are plenty of things that deserve the effort (and it is an effort) of
preserving, and the undistinguishing mania for "change" doesn't do them
justice--isn't even concerned with doing them justice. What we really ought to
ask the liberal, before we even begin addressing his agenda, is this: In what
kind of society would he be a conservative?
For some reason, we have allowed the malcontent to assume moral prestige. We
praise as "ideals" what are nothing more than fantasies--a world of perpetual
peace, brotherhood, justice, or any other will-o'-the-wisp that has lured men
toward the Gulag.
The malcontent can be spotted in his little habits of speech: He calls
language and nationality "barriers" when the conservative, more appreciatively,
recognizes them as cohesives that make social life possible. He damns as
"apathy" an ordinary indifference to politics that may really be a healthy
contentment. He praises as "compassion" what the conservative earthily sees as a
program of collectivization. He may even assert as "rights" what tradition has
regarded as wrongs.
"We must build out of existing materials," says Burke. Oakeshott laments that
"the politics of repair" has been supplanted by "the politics of destruction and
creation." It is typical of malcontent (or "utopian") politics to destroy what
it has failed to appreciate while falsely promising to create. Communism, the
ideal type of this style of politics, has destroyed the cultural life of Russia,
which flourished even under the czars. The energies of radical regimes are
pretty much consumed in stifling the energies of their subjects; they try to
impose their fantasies by force and terror, and their real achievement is to be
found not in their population centers but at their borders, which are armed to
kill anyone who tries to flee. Communism can claim the distinction of driving
people by the millions to want to escape the homeland of all their ancestors.
Nothing is easier than to image some notionally "ideal" state. But we give
too much credit to this debased kind of imagination, which is so ruthless when
it takes itself seriously. To appreciate, on the other hand, is to imagine the
real, to discover use, value, beauty, order, purpose in what already exists; and
this is the kind of imagination most appropriate to creatures, who shouldn't
confuse themselves with the Creator.
The highest form of appreciation is worship. I don't insist that there is a
correlation between formal religion and conservatism. But there is an attitude
prior to any creed, which may make a healthy-minded unbeliever regretful that he
has nobody to thank for all the goodness and beauty in his life that he has done
nothing to deserve. One might almost say that the crucial thing about a man is
not whether he believes in God, but how he imagines God: as infinitely good and
adorable, or merely as an authoritarian obstacle to human desire? The opposite
of piety is not unbelief, but crassness.
Even more modest forms of appreciation take some humility. The investor who
finds a way to make soap from peanuts has more genuine imagination than the
revolutionary with a bayonet, because he has cultivated the faculty of imagining
the hidden potentiality of the real. This is much harder than imagining the
unreal, which may be why there are so many more utopians than inventors. The
utopian wants to fly by disregarding gravity instead of understanding it.
The point of all this is not just to censure the malcontent for failing to
come to terms with this world. I am arguing for an appreciation of the role of
appreciation. In our lives we don't really spend much time or gain much profit
by doing the kind of abstract thinking that usually passes for intellection
nowadays. Most of the time we are evaluating the concrete alternatives available
to us--buying and selling, choosing careers, wooing and wedding, groping for the
right word, convicting or acquitting, finding homes, that sort of thing. None of
these is a utopian activity. (Neither, by the way, is voting.)
We are forever exercising our powers of imagination on the real and the
given, in other words, not on the purely hypothetical. Our energies go into
actual decisions, which express the evaluations we are in a position to express
with our wills. We take it for granted, but we need to remind ourselves that
this is what life is all about for most normal people. Everyone has the capacity
to make choices of various kinds, always within limits. The freedom that matters
is the freedon to exercise such choices, though they are beneath the notice of
so many of our theorists.
Under regimes dominated by the dream of "building a new society," the state
makes all the evaluations. It leaves very little room for the common exercise of
the kind of appraising imagination the normal man and woman are endowed with.
Everything is frozen at a certain level, no higher than the imaginations of the
ruling mediocrities, who see no need of development in philosophy, art, or
science (except applied science, as applied to techniques of war and conquest).
A state that is willing to usurp the faculties of those it rules, by refusing to
let them work, think, and discover freely, has already proved itself barbarous,
even if it doesn't go on (as of course it will) to resort to concentration camps
and mass executions.
In a healthy political system--a free and civilized one--the individual has
scope for a wide range of acts of practical appreciation. The system is
designed--not a priori, but by experience--to enable him to live this way; the
individual is not only a fact but also a social institution, and the society
profits by the little evaluative acts of every member. The law exists to make
its members free, in the way people should be free, as opposed to both the bogus
freedom imagined by anarchism and the slavery Communism calls freedom. That is
why Burke specifies: "I speak of civil social man, and no other"--not man in a
"state of nature" or a false "fraternity" or "comradeship," but simply man under
Most of the world is a mystery. Consciousness is a little clearing in a vast
forest; every individual has his own special relation to the area of mystery,
his own little discoveries to impart. Discovery is by definition unpredictable,
and it is absurd for the state to foreclose the process of learning. There are
moods when we are too exhausted to imagine that there is still more to be
learned; an ideology is a system of ideas that wants to end the explorations we
are constantly making at the margin of consciousness, and to declare all the
mysteries solved. This is like the congressman who introduced a bill a century
ago to close the U.S. Patent Office, on the ground that every possible invention
had already been invented.
In talking of mystery this way, I donht at all intend to sound mystical. It
is a very practical matter. The world is inexpressibly complex. Every individual
is a mystery to every other, so much so that communication is difficult and
fleeting. Moreover, the past is a mystery too: very little of it can be
permanently possessed. We have various devices--words, rituals, records,
commemorations, laws--to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep
dissolving our ties with what has existed before.
There is no question of "resisting change." The only question is what can and
should be salvaged from "devouring time." Conservation is a labor, not
indolence, and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of
tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.
In fact conservation is so hard that it could never be achieved by sheer
conscious effort. Most of it has to be done by habit, as when we speak in such a
way as to make ourselves understood by others without their having to consult a
dictionary, and thereby give a little permanence to the kind of tradition that
is a language.
Habits of conservation depend heavily on our affection for the way of life we
are born to, which always includes far more than we can ever be simultaneously
conscious of at a given moment. We speak our language and observe our laws by
habit. It would be too much of a strain to have to learn a new language or a new
set of laws every day. Habit allows a multitude of things to remain inplicit; it
lets us deal with ordinary situations without fully understanding them. It
allows us to trust our milieu.
Only a madman, one might think, would dare to speak of changing the entire
milieu -- "building a new society" -- or even to speak as if such a thing were
possible. And yet this is the current political idiom. It is seriously out of
touch with a set of traditions whose good effects it takes too much for granted;
it fails to appreciate them, as it fails to appreciate the human situation.
A political and legal system has to be based on the moral habits of its
citizens, if it is concerned with anything more than power. To say that "that
government is best which governs least" is not to yearn for anarchy: it is to
say that those laws are best that don't require a huge apparatus of surveillance
and enforcement. The foolishness of Prohibition was that it pitted the law
against deep-rooted ways of life. Socialism makes the same mistake on an even
larger scale. As Burke puts it, "I cannot conceive how any man can have brought
himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but
carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases."
The conservative isn't embarrassed by the particularity of his traditions; he
loves it. He neither shares nor understands the liberal's passion for taking
positive measures to cut the present off from the past, as by erasing traces of
christianity in the law. It is Christianity, after all, that has formed our
ideas of law. To accept this fact is no more to "establish religion" than
writing the laws in English is to "discriminate against" people who don't speak
English. Christianity is the basis of our moral idiom. Anyone who doubts this
should try to imagine imposing the U.S. Constitution on a Moslem or Hindu
country. Roosting Christianity out of our political tradition is like rooting
words derived from Latin out of our dictionaries. It remains embedded even when
it isn't noticed. There is no real point in trying to take it out or, for that
matter, to put more of it in.
A tradition incorporates so many implicit things that Joseph de Maistre
rightly speaks of the "profound idiocy" of supposing that "nations may be
constituted with ink." And yet the liberal is constantly trying to do
approximately this, by manufacturing new laws, new "rights," repealing old ones,
meanwhile, with equal facility. He regards the past (as in "the dead hand of the
past") with contempt and shame; naturally, it inspires no affection in him, and
he finds little to admire in it. He reserves his affection for kindred spirits,
especially socialists, who are busy abroad imposing new schemes and cutting
their own nations' ties to the past. ("I have seen the future, and it works.")
For the modern liberal, who is essentially a man of the Left, the immediate
has apocalyptic urgency. He is an active member of the Cause-of-the-Month Club,
forever prescribing drastic action to prevent the world from being blown up,
overpopulated, poisoned, oppressed, or exploited. He thinks a government that
maintains law and order--a big job at any time--is "doing nothing"; because to
his mind a steady and quiet activity is nothing more than inactivity. Though he
speaks the language of environmental preservation well enough, he never pauses
to imagine the "environmental impact" of his own policies on a social ecology
that is, after all, no less real because he disregards it.
In short, he is always sacrificing the normal (he is barely aware of it, or
sneers at it as "bourgeois") to the abnormal. Life, to him, is a series of
crises, inseparable from politics. He is too concerned about our "rights" to
bother about our health--rather as if a man dying of cirrhosis were to toast the
repeal of Prohibition. If he ever has moments of well-being outside of politics,
he has no vocabulary in which to talk about them.
But unfortunately, his vocabulary is pretty much the current vocabulary of
politics, and when conservatives try to debate on his terms, their philosophy
tends to appear as the mirror-image of his ideology. A few years ago the two
camps were debating over the putative distinction between "totalitarian" and
"authoritarian" systems. Liberals treated this as a quibble, a distinction
without a difference. The debate sounded abstract and technical, as if egregious
incidents of torture were simply "human-rights violations."
The distinction was valid, all right: and in fact liberals have consistently
observed it in practice themselves, by preferring the totalitarian to the
authoritarian, the Soviet Union an Cuba to South Africa and Chile. But
conservatives failed to make the more serious and central point that the real
difference between the authoritarian and the totalitarian is the difference
between the bearable and the unbearable.
The story is told by those armed borders: people are free to leave Chile,
because no great number want to leave; and blacks actually migrate into South
Africa. This is not to defend the political institutions of these nations; but
it is to point out that those institutions, good or bad, won't play so
overbearing a role in the lives of their subjects so to make normal people
The very existence of censorship in authoritarian systems is a sign that all
is not lost. The liberal can only damn censorship in a moralistic way; it
doesn't occur to him that art, literature, and jouralism can only be censored
when they are already being independently produced. The kind of censorship
exercised by regimes intent only on preserving a monopoly at the level of
politics is different in kind from Communism's attempt to commandeer all the
cultural energies of a nation, and to decree what shall be produced. It wasn't
until 1978, for example, that Handel's messiah had its first public performance
in the Soviet Union--and even then it was accompanied by a libretto that glossed
its theme as an allegory of the proletariat's struggle for liberation.
"Men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it is big enough," says
Chesterton. One of the things most men are currently blind to is the total
politicization of man. This development doesn't strike the liberal as
particularly sinister; if he notices it at all, he thinks of it as a good thing.
After all, he is a thoroughly politicized man; and isn't all of life essentially
political anyway? Isn't it up to us to decide what sort of society we are going
to build, what sort of laws and morals and distribution of wealth we are going
The liberal has no specific objection to totalitarianism for the simple
reason that he is already operating on totalitarian premises. He may be less
headlong and bloddthirsty than the Communist, buth he has as little regard for
the past as little sense that there may be anything in the tradition he inherits
that deserves the effort of appreciation or surpasses his understanding. He
judges everything in terms of a few ready-made political categories, which are
expressed in a monotonous cant of "equality," "discrimination," "freedom of
expression," and the like. He never thinks of these as possibly inadequate to
his situation, because he never thinks of himself as working in partnership with
the past, let alone as the junior partner in the relationship. Patience and
humility aren't the marks of the malcontent. He is too busy making war on
poverty to think of making his peace with prosperity: if the real economy
doesn't spread wealth as quickly and evenly as he would like, he blames it and
tries to remake it, taking no responsibility, however, for the adverse results
of his efforts.
The chief objection to liberal moralism, in fact, is that it is immoral. This
is equally true of all ideologies that dispense with realities they can't
include in their visions. The economy, they think, has failed; the family has
failed; the church has failed; the whole world has failed. But their visions
have never faileD, no matter what their cost in waste of human lives and
possibilities. The dream itself is sovereign; to reject it is to be guilty of
refusing to aspire; to embrace it is to lay claim to a moral blank check. As
Burke said of the French revolutionaries: "In the manifest faulure of their
abilities, they take credit for their intentions."
But the conservative knows that the dream itself is guilty. It springs from a
failure to appreciate the real, and to give thanks.
II. THE RULE OF LAW
Appreciating and conserving are constant activities, because nobody can
completely avoid valuing and giving continuity to something, even if it is
Communism. The real question is what to conserve.
Political conservatism is focused on the rule of law. This may seem obvious
and uncontroversial to the point of banality, since everyone thinks of himself
as in favor of the rule of law as a matter of course.
But the rule of law is a highly specific thing, not always rightly understood
and already seriously corrupted. Some of its worst enemies are legislators. To
understand why it is in danger, we have to be rather precise about what it is.
The secular way of life of the West is summed up in the term civility.
Civility means more than "being nice"; it stands for the particular kind of
relationship among people that differs from other relationships that co-exist
with it (kinship, friendship, partnership in business) so well as relationships
that are incompatible with it (slavery, fealty to a lord, socialist
Civility is the relationship among citizens in a republic. It corresponds to
the condition we call "freedom," which is not just an absence of restraint or
coercion, but the security of living under commonly recognized rules of conduct.
Not all these rules are enforced by the state; legal institutions of civility
depend on the ethical substratum and collapse when it is absent. And in fact the
colloquial sense of civility as good manners is relevant to its political
meaning: citizens typically deal with each other by consent, and they have to
say "please" and "thank you" to each other.
The hermit in the desert may be "free" in the trivial sense of being able to
do as he likes without interference--without interference, because without
society. But civility represents the kind of freedom we can enjoy "sociably": I
speak of civil social man, and no other.
The civil condition is natural to man. It is not a dream, but something we
can actually realize, and do in fact partially realize all the time. It is
anything but utopian, even though its perfect realization, like all forms of
perfection, is elusive.
Friedrich A. Hayek observers that we are by nature rule-observing creatures:
we even observe rules we can't formulate. People sitting in a restaurant
relaxing jovially may be effortlessly keeping all sorts of rules their attention
isn't even directed to: taking turns speaking, keeping the noise down, giving
each other the benefit of the doubt, suppressing unflattering observations about
each other, and so forth. If all rules had to be followed by a conscious effort
or enforced with maximum vigilance, social life would be impossible. A big
influx of outsiders who aren't initiated into the local rules can cause a great
deal of disturbance for just this reason.
If civility is natural, why is civil society as we think of it so rare? I
said before that civility is seldom totally absent, even if it is seldom
perfect. But most social and legal orders have some form of stratification--of
race, caste, religion, or whatever--that causes members of one gorup to feel
that they don't owe members of other groups the kind of ethical consideration
they owe their own. Groups may even "secede" from the civil condition, or
participate in it fraudulently: the Mafia perdures because its members keep
their own rules among themselves, even as they violate the rules of the polity.
Or an otherwise civil society may exclude some people from normal membership, as
we used to do with black people. But any group owes its cohesion to commonly
accepted rules. What is distinctive about the modern West is its moral ambition
to include every competent individual in civic membership. Liberty in the
ancient world, after all, was a special status; hardly anyone imagined it as
potentially universal, let alone as a "natural right."
Harry V. Jaffa points out that the generation of the Founding Fathers used
the words "free" and "equal" as synonyms. They didn't think there was any
"tension" between the two things, but, on the contrary, thought that the two
things were really one. Men were free in being equal, and equal in being
free-free, as Locke had put it, from being subject to the arbitrary will be
anyone else, monarch or slaveowner. Slavery was an anomaly that was bound to
cause trouble if it wasn't eliminated.
The "inflated legislation" of our own time, as Bruno Leoni and others have
called it, has helped obscure our understanding of the character of law.
Aristotle says that ideally there should be few laws, seldom changed.
This is so for several reasons. One is that those laws are best that require
least enforcement--laws that are rooted in the moral habits of the citizens, and
enjoy the citizens' respect for their permanence. This kind of respect shouldn't
be presumed upon or frittered away by the imposition of a multitude of trivial
laws. A law passed yesterday isn't likely to command the same assent as a law
that has existed for centuries.
Another is that it is a general function of rules, tacit or explicit, to make
social life predictable. If the law itself is unpredictable, it loses its
appropriate character. Even a law that is imperfect, abstractly considered, may,
as long as it isn't actually benefual, gain authority with time, simply because
people take it into account and base their private arrangements on it, like owns
nesting in an old barn that just happens to be there. "Familiarity," as Oakeshot
says, "is a supreme virtue in a rule." Reformers who don't bear this in mind may
do more harm than good, and their "improvements" may turn out to be destructive.
Moreover, as thinkers in the natural-law tradition saw before Hayek, positive
law should have the quality of seeming to be discovered or elicited from tacit
moral understandings commonly shared, rather than imposed by an effort of will.
The very nature of civil equality makes it wrong for one part of the community
to use legislation as the instrument of its own special interests; to do that is
to make the rest of the community to some degree subject to the arbitrary will
of those who control the legislature--a circumstance the Framers of the
Constitution were anxious to avoid, though the techniques of factional politics
have outwitted their careful arrangements over the years.
It is important to grasp the difference between laws and commands. Laws are
impersonal rules, general, disinterested, usually negative in form ("Thou shalt
not kill"). As Oakeshott says, they don't specify what substantive actions we
are to perform, but merely attach "adverbial conditions" to whatever courses of
action we may happen to choose. Commands, on the other hand, are positive
expressions of will. They leave no alternatives. ("And the king said, Bring me a
sword.") Laws are "observed," commands are "obeyed." To live under the rule of
law is to be a citizen; to live under commandment is to be a subject or even a
The distinction isn't absolute, but it is real enough. One of the major
corruptions of the rule of law is that so many current acts of the state are
commands masquerading as laws. Especially by its abuse of the taxing power,
American government all levels forces some people to serve the purposes of
others. Taxation has become, more and more openly, a method of confiscation.
Even the old sense of the word "tax" has been lost. It used to mean a fee
collected from everyone to pay for the operation of a government that was
partial to none (indeed, a federal appeals court briefly invalidated the Social
Security system on the grounds that money taken from some citizens to be given
to others was not, properly speaking, a tax). Now it refers simply to all the
revenue collected by the state, without limit, including the growing portion
that is not used by the state itself but turned over to powerful private
Frederic Bastiat offered a simple rule of thumb by which we can tell whether
the power of the state is being abused: the use of public means to do what it
would be plainly criminal to do by private means. If the state taxes Peter on
Paul's behalf. This sort of state action is so normalized by now that we
routinely speak, for example, of "increases in Social Security benefits" as if
there were no moral principle at stake. And most legislators have no idea that
they are engaged in activities inimical to the rule of law. Neither do most of
When people bother to justify this sort of state action, they often do so on
grounds of "compassion" or "protecting the weak," or they say that such action
is legitimate simply because it is achieved through "democratic process." Later
I will say more about what this use of the word "compassion" implies, though at
this point I will say only that it is pretty plainly fraudulent to anyone who
reflects on it. As for "protecting the weak" and "democratic process," this much
can be said right now:
Legislators are rather obviously representing politically powerful interests
when they provide money taken in taxes to large numbers of people. Those people
might be individually weak, but at the ballot box they are stronger than those
who are outnumbered or unorganized. This much is plain.
Moreover, the rule of law by its nature protects the weak. "Strong" and
"weak" are relative terms: a heavyweight champion may be weak vis-a-vis a dwarf
with a pistol. And as Anthony Flew wittily puts it, even in a nominally
egalitarian society of the socialist stamp, the "equalizees" are far from equal
to the "equalizers."
The genuine rule of law treats people alike, impartially. That is all the
protection the weak, however defined, can rightly ask. Majority rule can easily
degenerated, as it has done, into another form of the rule of the strong.
One major source of confusion is simple incomprehension of the nature of law.
People who fail to distinguish rules and commands in principle will fail to
distinguish them in practice. And some people, like Lenin, who are capable of
the distinction nevertheless take the cynical view that laws are merely commands
masquerading as rules: the real question is who is going to do what to whom.
This view can be found as far back as Plato, who puts into the mouths of
Thrasymachus and Gorgias the assertion that justice is nothing but the interest
of the strong.
On this view, the existing rules of society have been made by the strong, for
the strong, and are inherently "exploitative" of the weak. If follows that if
the weak are to be protected, it must be not by maintaining the rules but by
making exceptions to them. The fluidity of "the weak" muddles the situation, but
this has not stopped liberalism from making zigzagging demands of the law. In
1964, for example, it sought, and got, a federal "civil-rights" law that seemed
to have the neutral character of real law, and was understood to mandate
"color-blind" behavior; then it turned around and demanded that the law be
applied in color-conscious ways, implying that the very color-blind application
it had formerly promised would be, in essence, "discriminatory." So this law,
which was impartial in form, was turned into a device for racial privilege, and
citizens who had supported the law because it offered to protect the weak were
now told that if it were applied the way they had been assured it would be
applied, it would favor the strong!
The argument that confiscation or other factionally favoritist legislation
can be sanctified by "democratic is a principle of succession. It is based on
the reasonable notion that the people have the right to choose or at least
somehow consent to, their officers of government. This can prevent tyranny by
stripping the state of immunity from the discontent of the ruled.
But democracy can't make right what is inherently wrong, and it can't
authorize the government to do more than government may properly do. A principle
of succession has nothing to say about the nature of the office whose succession
is at stake. It ensures an orderly transfer of authority; it can't expand the
authority beyond the rational limits of the rule of law itself.
If rights are "unalienable," then no government, whatever its popularity, may
abridge them. A people has no right to choose Communism, for example, even by
unanimous vote. Even if it had the absurd right to abolish its own rights, it
would have no right to abolish the rights of its descendants.
In any case, no majority has ever wanted evertything to be decided by
majority rule. Democracy is good to the extent that it helps secure personal
liberty; the end of political liberty is private liberty, as Johnson says.
There is a kind of democracy that is designed to achieve liberty, and it is
the kind of republican government envisioned by the Framers. They were
specifically concerned not to let the 51 per cent push the 49 per cent around.
They provided filtering devices in the hope that factional interests would
cancel each other out, even in the event that "republican
virtue"--civic-mindedness--failed to check them. But their main hope was that
republican virtue would usually prevail, and that no majority would try to make
life miserable for the minority.
It is generally forgotten that modern democracy had its origins in revulsion
against arbitrary government, and that the ideal of majoritarian government was
to provide a rule of law approximating, as closely as possible, unanimous
consent. Consensus is not always possible, but it is something to aim for, and
some scholars argue that even Rousseau's "general will" envisioned the state not
as a vehicle of popular passion but, on the contrary, as an institution that
would be restricted by consensus. But this ideal has been trampled by the habits
of special-interest politics. The "new meaning of legislation," says Leoni,
corresponds "not to a 'common' will, that is, a will that may be presumed as
existent in all citizens, but to the expression of the particular will of
certain individuals and groups who were lucky enough to have a contingent
majority of legislators on their side at a given moment.... [Legislation] has
come to resemble more and more a sort of Diktat that the winning majorities in
the legislative assemblies impose upon the minorities, often with the result of
overturning long-established individual expectations and creating completely
unprecedented ones." Furthermore, he continues, "legislation may have and
actually has in many cases today a negative effect on the very efficacy of the
rules and on the homogeneity of the feelings and convictions already prevailing
in a given society." Instead of promoting stability, as genuine law does,
interest-bound legislation undermines it.
This is of extreme importance, because the one thing the state can never
establish by decree is stability, or continuity. It can only continue it. And by
the same token, the state, whose main instrument is coercion, can't arbitrarily
assign value to things. People value things for their own reasons; that is what
it means to be valued. And one of the main considerations in the value of things
is their security and permanence, which the state can interrupt in a moment but
can only guarantee over the long run. Our chief warrant for thinking a thing
will last is that it, or things like it, have already lasted. In the same way
that crime devalues property, the prospect of confiscation or heavy taxation
devalues any wealth in view. a too-active state can reduce the value of things
very quickly; but the short-term political profits of activism are irresistible
to many politicians. The democratic plague of inflation--devalued money--is the
most vivid example.
The rule of law essentially regularizes a pre-existing cmanner of living"
(Oakeshott's phrase). Harry Truman's complaint about the "do-nothing Congress"
was the complaint of a boor who had little graps of his own heritage and assumed
that the state should be, as C. S. Lewis puts it, "incessantly engaged in
legislation." Maintenance, I repeat, is a demanding activity, and the state that
maintains a traditional order against all the forces of decay is not "doing
nothing." It is doing plenty. It is doing nearly all we can or should ask.
We are indebted to Oakeshott for another important distinction. It is a
distinction that has occurred to relatively few people, and yet our traditional
political conduct presupposes it: what he calls the difference in kind between
"civil" association and "enterprise" association.
Enterprise association is easier to understand because it is closer to
activities we are directly aware of. It comes about whenever people unite to
achieve a shared purpose: salvation, gain, victory, charity. But enterprise
association is generally regulated by some form of civil association, which
comes about when people of diverse purposes manage to agree on the framework of
procedural rules that will govern the pursuit of their goals. A baseball team is
an enterprise association; the American League is more nearly a civil
association. The difference also corresponds to the difference between a law
firm and a bar association. One might think that an underworld gang would be the
pure form of enterprise association, and yet Lucky Luciano introduced an element
of civil association into the business when he abolished the chaos of warring
autocracies that had prevailed among the old "Mustache Petes" and instituted a
new, federal structure, in which territories were recognized open warfare was
reduced, and a nine-man commission replaced the old "boss of bosses." By
bringing more non-Sicilians into the mobs, Luciano even made organized crime
ouvert aux talents. And by making crime more civilized, he facilitated the
success of its enterprises.
Oakeshott, Hayek, Raymond Aron, and Bertrand de Jouvenel all adopt a similar
terminology for two types of state: the state that is devoted to some
enterprise--conquest, redistribution, economic growth--is a teleocracy; the
state that confines itself to maintaining the rule of law is a nomocracy. (Hayek
also speaks of such states as, respectively, "end-governed" and
"rule-governed.") Under teleocracy, laws become commands, instrumental to the
achievement of the state's substantive purpose. Under nomocracy, the state has
no overarching purpose of its own; its concern is with the pure character of the
rule of law; its citizens are united in civil association.
The United States is obviously an uneasy mixture of the two types; it began
as a nomocracy, but has taken on more and more features of teleocracy. The
Soviet Union is pretty close to pure teleocracy. And when it was fashionable to
talk of the two systems as "converging," Aron raised the pertnent question why
the West, as it moved toward teleocracy, should suppose that this would somehow
induce the Soviets to move toward nomocracy. He predicted exactly what
subsequently happened: the Soviet Union remained a system designed to achieve
its substantive goals. Our confusion has not abated lately: even a conservative
commentator, George Will, says enthusiastically that government should give
citizens the sense that they are united in "a great common enterprise."
Civility is a kind of relation that recognizes the moral priority of more
intimate relations. We don't owe fellow citizens the same sort of obligations we
owe family, friends, co-religionists. Civic relations respect this order of
duties and affections, as when a wife is excused from testifying against her
husband. But in teleocratic regimes, everything may be collapsed into political
membership, and children may be ordered to inform on their parents, or taken
away from parents who subvert their loyalty to the state, as by teaching them
religion. (In the Soviet Union, the regime has even fostered a cult in honor of
Pavel Morozov, a boy who reported his father to the secret police during
Stalin's purges and was killed by furious relatives.) Most teleocracies are not
that ruthless, and they usually leave a residue of personal loyalties untouched;
but when, in principle, the purposes of the state are imposed as the governing
purposes of all, such enormities are at least possible.
But Will is right on target when he speaks of "the primacy of private life."
That is what the rule of law is all about. If, as Johnson says, to be happy at
home is the end of all human endeavor, then political health consists in a legal
system governed by the modest recognition that this may be so.
Unfortunately, liberalism has made teleocratic assumptions the lingua franca
of American politics. We speak of "war on poverty," for example, and though most
people may be troubled by dumb reservations about such grandiose ambitions, they
don't know how to talk back. Civility is a subtle refinement. By their very
nature, civil relations are not the primary relations in anyone's life, and most
people have no idea of how even to begin resisting political demands that would
absorb those relations into a radically different kind of social order. For
civil man, politics is generally a distinctly part-time matter. For the
political fanatic, politics is everything.
Civility is natural in that even a band of Gypsies who live by theft and
fraud need to have some rules of conduct among themselves. But in the West
civility has been developed as a principle for cultural reasons: Christianity
made a basic distinction between the things that are Caesar's and the things
that are God's, and even secularization has been advanced on Christian
principles, which show up, for example, in the distinction between the public
and the private, where the private is recognized as having a certain
The development of civility in this specific form has been going on for a
long time now, and John Murray Cuddihy points out that for certain "latecomers
to modernity," accustomed to more intimate cultural surroundings with few
sophisticated differentiations, the impersonality of civil life can become "the
ordeal of civility." Such people tend to favor a politics that promises more
immediate emotional rewards than mere civility can offer: warmth, brotherhood,
compassion, the solace of a political leadership that "cares about the little
man." And people in this state of mind can only experience civility as coldness,
During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt managed to convert feelings of this
sort into a newl political coalition, in which immigrant groups were prominent,
though it also included plenty of cultural natives whose faith in the rule of
law, as represented by Coolidge and Hoover, had suffered a shock. It used to be
said that Roosevelt "ended" the Depression; then, more plausibly, that he "led
us through" the Depression. The truth is probably that he somewhat prolonged it.
But it didn't matter to his admirers: what he really offered was the image of a
loving autocrat who would dispense with the rule of law, if necessary, to help
"the little man," a disposition he conveyed, in cozy terms, through his
"Fireside Chats." He was actually one of the great demagogues of the Thirties;
and he dealt American constitutional government a blow from which it may never
As the indispensable Oakeshott reminds us, a rule doesn't initiate action.
The rule of law can't supply motive power; it can only give its support to the
normal energies that already exist in people. It may help maintain the value of
things, but it is not a source of value in itself.
No mere system of law, therefore, can be substitute for the affections and
desires and imaginations of real people, and the project of "building a new
society" is a worse than idle one. Governing, says Oakshott, is a specific and
limited activity, easily corrupted when combined with any other: "The
conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny." People who dream of what
government could do are generally people who fail to appreciate what it does.
they are probably stronger, subjectively, than their opposites, for the simple
reason that the marginal member of society has to be preoccupied with his
situation in a way the ordinary member doesn't have to, just as the dwarf is
bound to think about height more than the six-footer. The majority who enjoy a
more or less normal position in society may be unconscious of and insensitive to
the minority, while the minority are likely to feel envy and a chafing sense of
In one respect the problems of minorities are probably exaggerated: most of
their members have never personally suffered the assorted insults and injuries
their "spokesmen" are forever talking about. People who dwell on Auschwitz and
the lynch mob without having come within a thousand miles of either are really
expressing outrage at what they think of as their low social status, rather than
pointing to any relevant material suffering. They want the majority to feel
guilt for wrongs neither party committed or endured, and they want the majority
to feel also that it has to make some form of compensation. This style of moral
blackmail become ridiculous in feminists who insist that the condition of women
in the West can be summed up as one of "oppression"; it reaches a parodic
extreme in homosexuals who claim what John Murray Cuddihy calls "accredited
victim status" because their habits have suffered disapproval since the Great
What is at issue in these matters is not a set of facts but a way of looking
at the facts. Most of the time Americans deal with each other civilly, and their
antagonisms and rival interests form a small part of the whole picture. But
liberalism insists on highlighting points of difference and treating moments of
conflict as the essence of the relation between groups whose identities hardly
enter into the ordinary transactions between their members.
Put another way, liberalism cultivates alienation. It does so because it has
become a form of alienation. It has a heavy investment in estrangement. It is
primarily interested in emergencies and social pathologies, and it makes policy
prescriptions on the basis of abnormal situations, with no concern for the
possible impact on the normal. It finds disease everywhere, without offering a
useful image of health. And its remedies aggravate real diseases:
redistribution, "gay rights," abortion on demand, appeasement--none of these
policies has ketp its promises, but liberalism was never eally interested in the
There are two possible basic attitudes toward social reality. One of these,
as I say, has many names, but I will call, it, for convenience, Nativism: a
prejudice in favor of the native, the normal, and so forth, reaching an extreme
in lynchings and pogroms. Its most ghastly form was German National Socialism.
The other attitude I am forced, for lack of a better word--or any word at
all--to call Alienism: a prejudice in favor of the alien, the marginal, the
dispossesed, the eccentric, reaching an extreme in the attempt to "build a new
society" by destroying the basic institutions of the native. The most terrible
fulfillment of this principle is Communism.
It would be natural to assume that Nativism would be more destructive,
because native forces would seem to be better situated in most cases to destroy
the alien than alien forces to destroy the native. But for some reason history
hasn't worked out that way. What is plain, at any rate, is that Alienism is far
from a marginal force. It offers malcontents of all sorts an ideology or gnosis
that enables them to interpret normal life maliciously as a crude though
somewhat disguised struggle between oppressors and victims. If the oppression
isn't obvious, that is because the oppressors are so cunning and their victims
so totally subjugated that even their perceptual powers are in thrall. Acquiring
the liberating gnosis is called "consciousness-raising." The process enables the
initiate to strip off the mask of oppressive structures and see capitalism as
exploitation, freedom as "repressive tolerance," and prosperity as "invisible
Liberalism and Marxism are variant forms of Alienism; so are feminism and
"gay liberation," for that matter. Liberalism does all it can to accommodate its
sister ideologies without overtly endorsing them; and it is bound to insist that
the real peril to humanity is always some form of Nativism. This accounts for
its obsession with the Nazi period, its endless search for old Nazis, its wild
alrm over the most eccentric expression of neo-Nazism, and above all its
attempts to link its enemies with Nazism. The liberal campaign against South
Africa--whose racial caste system is far milder than the tribal caste systems of
states like Burundi --is a symbolic effort to nominate a clear and present
successor to Nazism, and the scale of material evil and suffering created by
apartheid hs nothing to do with its status in liberal demonology.
We don't have to choose between Nativism and Alienism. A healthy native is
not an all-out Nativist, but rather has a code of hospitality and gallantry that
takes into account the position of the alien; and the reasonable marginal member
of society is not bound to be a fanatical Alienist, even though there are those
who would like to inflame his resentments. Both perspectives have their stories
to tell. Both can be accommodated by civility and the rule of law, without
privileges for either, although it is a mark of the surprising power of Alienism
that its favored minorities do, in spite of majority sentiment, enjoy privileges
based on race.
There is no militant Nativism to speak of in America; but there is militant
Alienism, and it has power not only in the law but in the current culture
propagated by the media and the academy. The very fact that Alienism was
nameless until I came along, while there were a dozen words, all invidious, for
Nativist attitudes, shows how thoroughly entrenched the Alienist perspective is.
The very meaning of Alienism's vocabulary has changed in keeping with the
success of its aggression against traditional America. At one time "McCarthyism"
referred to the smearing of putatively innocent liberals as Communists; but
recently the identification of Communista as Communists has earned them the
title of "victims of McCarthyism." "Racism" used to refer to conscious
discrimination against blacks by whites who would probably have agreed that the
term fit them; now it is used to intimidate opposition to racial quotas and
busing by libeling people who still hold what used to be the liberal position,
namely, that the state should be color-blind.
Shakespeare was well acquainted with alienation; several of his major
characters are social malcontents. But he takes a different view from that of
the liberal culture: he depicts them less as victims than as troublemakers. As
always, he allows his characters their eloquent say; but Richard III, Shylock,
Iago, and Edmund, for all the provocation of being hunchbacked, Jewish, passed
over for promotion, and illegitimate, remain villains. Their societies are
required to deal sternly with them. Their self-rationalizations cut no ice when
the chips are down, and they know it. Whatever just resentments are generated by
their social situations, they are expected to behave themselves. Coriolanus is
both more magnificent and more monstrous than these other malcontents; when he
is finally cut down, his tragedy lies in his having created the situation in
which he is doomed, although he too has been wronged.
Its moral reflexes conditioned by liberalism, America today is incapable of
such objectivity about evildoers bearing credentials as victims. All of us have
had our consciousness raised, willy-nilly. Serious moral criticism of ethnic and
sexual subcultures is pretty much taboo, despite unpleasant facts that stare us
in the face. Even criminals (though not white-collar--i.e., white--criminals)
have had their vogue as victims.
Alienism will settle for nothing less than the complete inversion of the
normal perspective. Jean-Francois Revel catches the theme in an arresting
remakr: "Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because
another power is working to destroy it." The native in the West has accepted the
Alienist critique with remarkable passivity; his morale is at an all-time low.
He regards it as his duty to tolerate, without even voicing an objection, people
who want to destroy his way of life, prey on his children, and desecrate
everything he used to hold sacred.
Alienism even had a hit TV show of its own, All in the Family, whose message
was that the native American (so to speak--Alienism has awarded even this title
to a pet minority) is a bigot and buffoon. Archie Bunker was provided with a
live-in moral monitor in the form of a liberal son-in-law, of "ethnic"
derivation, who corrected his grammatical and political solecisms (Archie used
double negatives and voted for Nixon and Reagan).
Ronald Reagan himself committed what was in Alienist terms the ultimate
solecism by describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and "the focus of
evil in the modern world." He had, in a word, affronted the great embodiment of
Alienism on this earth. The Soviet Union is not an evil to liberals; it is an
embarrassment. Far more terrible in sheer scale than Nazi Germany ever was, it
can't be allowed to become the focus of the kind of direct moral attention
Reagan gave it. It is a "reality" that "we have to learn to live with," but its
stupendous crimes are consigned by liberalism to unreality, and all liberal
protest against South Africa and the like is a concerted distraction from
history's supreme moral horros, liberalismhs near relation in Moscow, which can
neither be acknowledged nor completely disowned.
Nativism is the belligerent moral self-assertion of the native; Alienism is
the subversive insistence that all's wrong with the world. It can be
illuminating to compare them, but they are not exactly parallel: Alienism is
more subtle. It can use more discretion in deciding where to strike.
One of its principal targets is "capitalism," a blanket term for a free
economy. Just because it is impracticable to attack all economic transactions at
once, liberalism issues a general condemnation of "inequality" while homing in
on vulnerable points. By calling the overall distribution of wealth unjust, it
authorizes itself to call for state intervention anywhere, without bothering to
specify the final distribution it wuld like to see. Private transactions embody
"greed"; state programs of redistribution to liberal client-groups represent
"compassion." In good gnostic fashion, liberalism damns the entire material
world; but it redeems selected parts through piecemeal collectivization.
Like any political machine, liberalism passes its booty out among favored
dependents, in the guise of succoring victims. Its moral pretensions have been
so successful, its claims of idealism so unchallenged, that nobody thinks to
call the liberal machinery a sysem of greed and corruption. The gnosis
comprehensively denies that anyone in a free economic system can ever "earn" or
"deserve" his income; to legitimate success in the free market would be to
accept the normal, in violation of every Alienist principle--not to mention
interest. Liberalism prefers to establish a tacit standard that no capitalist
could possibly reach.
One of liberalism's most successful strategies has been to establish a
standing presumption of guilt against the native: his motives are always in
question, his racism and bogotry "just beneath the surface." But the native is
forbidden to play this game: if he suggests that certain Alienist forces aren't
on the up-and-up, he "thinks there's a Communist under every bed." His bad faith
can be inferred from "patterns of discrimination"; he has to make a "good-faith
effort" to cleanse himself before Alienist arbiters of good faith.
One of the best studies of Alienist ideology and techniques is Kenneth
Minogue's book Alien Powers. It is typical of ideology, according to Minogue, to
interpret the whole world under the aspect of power, and every concrete
situation in terms of oppressors and victims. A key strategy is to assume a
monopoly of both insight and honesty; by this means the ideologue puts himself
in the position of privileged accuser, always judging, never judged. The
structure of ideological thought is heads, I win; tails, you lose.
The native Americanhas fallen for this con game. He accpts the most malicious
construction of his own words and acts, while extending a courteous benefit of
the doubt to his enemies. The motives of the Alienist are never called in
quesion; the native lets the Alienist take his wallet, and doesn't even count
the change. He grumbles a little every April 15, but he never makes a connection
between liberal ideology, government spending, and his own tax rates. Least of
all does he suspect how he is hated by these people whom e is constantly trying
to assure of is good intentions. He takes for granted his assigned role as
Liberalism has succeeded brilliantly in controlling the perspective from
which public discussion is conducted. It speaks piously of "the extremes of Left
and Righ"--i.e., of Commnism and Nazism, Alienism and Nativism--while in fact it
equates these two extremes only for the tactical purpose of helping one of them:
it conceals its own alignment with the "Left," while assigning its conservative
critics to the "Right."
In the same conversation with my liberal friend that I referred to at the
beginning of this chapter, he remarked on how "right-wing" my views were. "I
agree with James Madison," I said. "Is that 'right-wing'?"
"I suppose if Madison were alive today and held the same views he did then,"
he replied, we'd call him right-wing."
I suppose "we" could--we liberals, at any rate. I pointed out that the
assumption that one has a duty to move "leftward" with history might be a
The weary image of left and right wings (if you can even call it an image)
conveys very little, and indirectly expresses the perspective of the "Left"
itself. What, after all, is the common denominator of constitutional
conservatism, libertarianism, fascism, monarchism, and for tat matter Shiite
Islam, that they should all be lumped together as "right-wing"? Left to
themseves, in a world without Alienism, they would have bitter differences. All
they really have in common is that they oppose the "Left." But that is enough.
We speak of right and left wings because it serves the purposes of the Left that
we should do so.
IV. THE SOCIALIST PHENOMENON
SOCIALISM is the pure expresion of Alienism. It rejects n principle the
entire current and traditional form of society and insists on total
transformation. In order to accomlish this, it must replace consent with
unlimited state power.
There are those who espouse "democratic" socialism, but they are either fools
or time-servers. They refuse to acknowledge or admit tha socialism, a system of
total coercion, is incompatible in principle with civility.
To say no more than this is to be harsh. Humanly speaking, there is a naive
and excusable form of socialism, a notional socialism that occurs to everyone is
certain moods, as when the blinded Gloucester in King Lear prays that the gods
will punish the rich to teach them compassion for the poor:
So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough.
But for some people sucha sentiment is the beginning of a political career.
At one time it was plausible to think that socialism could be instituted with
just and happy results. The young George Orwll predicted: "The rate of
mechanical progress will be much more rapid once socialism is established." But
that was in the Thirties. Today socialism must be fired by different motives.
The best of these motives is a weariness with the world as it is, a world of
contention in which there is both surplus and need. One does not have t be
utopin to lament this state of affairs; but the error that propels men towar
socialism is to blame it all on the forces of production.
The naive mind sees capitalism as anarchy, "unbrindled competition," in which
desire distorts the pattern of distribution. I reasons that the earth is
abundant enough to provide for everyone, but that the price system prevens the
equal satisfaction of universally felt needs. Supply follows demand. Control
demand, and supply will reach its proper recipients.
What this view overlooks is that a price system itself i a way of taming
desire. Desire exists in any case; it can be satisfied by rape and pillage, or
even stimulated by the opportunity of rape and pillage. The rule of law forces
desire to find satisfaction in compromise and consent.
A price system is one mechanism of consent. As Tom Bethell has put it, a
price is the point of agreement between buyer and seller. Eliminate such
mechanisms, and desire will take other forms than monetary offers. A warrior
society or a band of Gypsies may find its own modes of satisfaction, but neither
The naive socialist imagines an abstract humanity in which all desires are
more or less identical, and peope produce more or less steadily, without such
varying motives as the striving for status, revenge, worship, diverse forms of
lust, envy--all the things that make this world so messy. The socialist is
obsessed with only one motive, greed, which in any case he misconceives and
thinks can be both blamed or what ails us and controlled by imposing a certain
kind of order. He fails to see that these random motives are here to stay;
furthermore, he fails to see that socialist systems actually give some of the
worst motives new scope.
In the Soviet Union, for instance, the lust for power is united with greed in
the ruling class, which enjoys privilege along with wealth despite its
"comradeship" with the workers whose production it appropriates for its own
purposes. The naive socialist has given little attention, much less indignation,
to this kind of exploitation, though the Soviet laborer is virtual slave, forced
to accept the wage set by the state (far lower than the Western laborer's wage)
and forbidden to strike or to emigrate.
The moral prestige of socialism is such that we are still being warned about
the excesses of capitalism, even after the extermination of tens of millions of
people uder socialist regimes. It makes no difference that socialism's actual
record is terribly bloody; socialism is forever judged by its promises and
supposed possibilities, while capitalim is judged by its worst cases. It makes
no difference, either, that immigration to America peaked during the period when
capitalism was freest, its "robber barons" politically powerful and sometimes
criminal, or that socialism not only attracts no immigrants but has to hold its
native populations captive. Capitalism still has to justifiy itself before the
The historical record makes a joke of dictionary definitions of socialism as
"government control of the means of production." The reality is much more
comprehensive than that: it extends even to state control of the means of
reproduction. China has lately bee revealed to suffer not only manatory
contraception, but forced late-term abortion.
True, socialism begins with a command economy. But it doesn't stop there. It
doesn't, because it can't. Socialism is by nature anti-civil. A price system is
civil, because a price is a compromise between two free gents who are each
other's equals. A command system is uncivil, because whoever commands is
imposing his will on the one he commands, and it makes no diffeence if the
strong party alls the weak party "comrade." Under socialism, some enjoy the
position of socialist planners; the rest are stuck with the unenviable role of
New Socialist Man.
Not all socialist theoristsare fanciful; Robert Heilbroner, for one, has been
unusually frank in facing up to what is entailed in the very idea of socialism.
Like most of his fellow believers, he envisions (writing in 1969) "a wholly new
kind of society, free of invidious striving and built on motives of cooperation
and confraternity." So much for the end; his candor appears in his
identification of the necessary means.
Heilbroner is well aware that socialism's real enemy is the whole way of life
of the people it would transform, and he accordingly devotes several lines to
discussing "non-economic measures" necessary for hoisting a backward people into
the wholly new kind of society:
For the objectives of economic development do not lie, like a military
citadel, exposed to the thrust of a single daring campaign. In the contrary, the
development assault [most juste!] is better likened to a long grueling march
through a hostile hinterland. The real resistance to development comes not from
the old regimes, which can be quickly overcome, b ut from the masses of the
population who must be wrenched from their established ways, pushed, prodded,
cajoled, or threatened into heroic efforts, and then systematically denied an
increase in well-being so that capital can be amassed for future growth.
Thispainful reorientation of a whole culture, judging by past experience, will
be difficult or impossible to attain without measures of severity; and when we
add the need to maintain a fervor of participation long beyond the first flush
of spontaneous enthusiasm, the necessity for stringent limitations on political
opposition and for forcible means of assuring economic cooperation seems
...Some nations, unfortunate in their resource endowment or in their
political connections with the industrialized nations, may be forced to undergo
a more or less thorough-going totalitarian transition.
In general, however, when we seek to project the problems of socialism is the
underdeveloped areas, we cannot sidestep the probability that intelectual
tiflement, political repression, and enforced social conformity will figure
prominently among them.
It sounds like a forecast--or prescription--of what was to happen in Cambodia
in 1975. But Heilbroner leaves no doubt, at the end of his grim cost-accounting,
that the dream is worth all the blood:
For taking socialism seriously mens more than acknowledging its difficulties
as a political movement. It mean understanding as well that socialism is the
expression of a collective hope for mankind, its idealization of what it
conceives itself t ba capable of. When the fires [sic] of socialism no longer
brn it will mean that mankind has extinguished that hope and abandoned that
Here we have a rare case of a socialist who really lays his cards on the
table, explicit in his contempt for both the physical suffering and the cultural
loss imposed by the pursuit of the new society. This doesn't require much
comment, but we may note that it is typical of the ideologue to treat socialism
as a universal aspiration of "mankind," and all the habits, customs, beliefs,
and desires that obstruct this putative aspiration as so much dross. Endowed
with universalism, the socialist dream acquires its right to imperialism. If it
takes purges and forced marches, purges and forced marches there will be.
The history of modern socialism illustrates Burke's dictum that "criminal
means, once tolerated, are soon preferred." And yet the thing has somehow kept
its moral credentials as the political model of "idealism." We still give its
proponents credit for good intentions, instead of condemning their blind
arrogance and greed for power over others. We apologize on behalf of human
nature for its failure to live "up" to the socialist ideal, instead of
condemning socialism for the violence it inflicts on human nature.
We even allow socialists to get off the hook by disowning the actual results
of socialism. We let them say that the more grisly results are "excesses"
(always to be distinguished from an essence that somehow is never realized) or
that socialism has been "betrayed" when it has only been remorselessly applied.
Various forms of socialism took root in Europe between the wars; to this day
the European democracies have powerful socialist parties. But America's
socialist parties have never won more than a tiny part of the national vote.
This might lead one to think that the socialist plague has missed us.
Unfortunately, it hasn't.
True, nominal socialist parties have stayed weak. But this means no more than
that the socialist label lacks popular appeal, not that the socialist impulse
doesn't exist here. That impulse has merely been forced to adopt disguises and
The ideological form of socialism in America has been liberalism; its
political vehicle has been the Democratic Party. Unlike what we might call the
"wholesale" (revolutionary or at least programmatic) forms of socialism,
liberalism is a "retail" form: it brings us socialism piecemeal, dividing
politics into discrete "issues" and choosing the collectivist option at every
Modern liberalism is careful not to embrace socialism in toto, but it has no
way of drawing the line against total collectivization, and doesn't want to. It
condemns as "ideological" any principled opposition to socialism, admires
socialist experiments abroad, and treats anti-Communism rather than Communism as
the major threat to peace. In any conflict between socialist and anti-socialist
forces, liberalism blames the latter if it can plausibly do so. By now its
behavior has shown itself so reliable that Europeans matter-of-factly explain to
each other that when Americans say "liberal" they mean what Europeans mean by
the word "socialist"; this is said not as an accusation, but as a simple
"Liberalism" used to mean devotion to certain procedural freedoms, so that it
was a feat of semantic perversity to take it for the cause of coercive
collectivism. Even most liberals don't fully realize what they have done. They
prefer to think of themselves as engaged in the expansion of personal freedoms.
They therefore use a rhetoric of procedure--civil rights, civil liberties,
sexual freedom, freedom of choice, economic democracy--to mask a substantive
agenda. They insist that their social-engineering programs are "pragmatic" (no
matter how the programs fail or backfire) and deny any overall drift. But under
it all, the contours of socialism can be seen.
How? In his book The Socialist Phenomenon, Igor Shafarevich points out that
"socialism" is only the modern word for a perennially recurrent power formation.
Socialist regimes have appeared in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the
Catharite communities of the Middle Ages, in South America under both the Incas
and the Jesuits, in Europe after the Reformation, and of course during the last
two centuries. They have had a set of common structural features: a
concentration of power in the name of equality, the annihilation of
individualism, community of wives (also called free love), and the abolition of
Socialism consistently attacks three basic social institutions that, by
offering independent bases of action, loyalty, and authority, impede the state's
monopoly of power: private property, the family, and religion. Marxism attacks
these things directly: it confiscates property, breaks up families, and
persecutes worshippers. (It may be forced to come to terms with all three in
order to abolish them, and it accepts them later only as dependencies--smaller
subdivisions--of the state.) Liberalism avoids the direct attack; it prefers to
subvert property, family, and religion more gradually, undermining their
definitions rather than attempting open violence.
The socialist oversoul that governs today's liberalism may be discerned in
the work of that most typical of liberal organizations, the American Civil
Liberties Union. For all its rhtoric of resistance to state encroachment, the
ACLU hasn't opposed collectivization in the slightest. Members of its national
board, in fact, have been Communists, and the ACLU was founded for the principal
purpose of advancing the cause of Communists and socialists. Its founder, Roger
Baldwin, once averred that "Communism is the goal." He said that the Soviet
Union had no need of a civil-liberties organization, since the workers already
The ACLU eventually began to keep its distance from Communism--Badwin
repented of his pro-Soviet days--but it has always opposed the state as
conceived by the Left: the state as servant of capitalist interests. For this
reason the ACLU has regularly been on the side of unions, tenants, protestors,
and the like against the claims of private property. It has been on the side of
sexual deviants, children, and feminism against the privileged status of the
family. It has been on the side of unbelievers and deviants against religion and
private religious institutions.
All this is not to say that the ACLU is always wrong; only that the structure
of its passions betrays its conception as a socialist enterprise. One of the few
occasions when it has taken the side of parental authority was its sponsorship
of the parents of Walter Polovchak, who wanted to take their unwilling son back
to the Soviet Union. And of course many of its clients have been Communists. It
has tried to demonstrate an evenhanded concern for free speech by defending
Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen too, but its strategic goal has always been to
promote agitation and subversion; besides, no Nazi or Klan member has ever sat
on its national board.
In good liberal fashion, the ACLU tries to present itself as conservative: it
affects to be "defending our constitutional rights." But its concern for these
rights has been purposefully uneven. Though it wants to "expand" certain
rights--the "freedom of expression" of pornographers, for instance--it has shown
no desire to expand the right to keep and bear arms, or even to defend it
against gun-control laws. Nor is it interested in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments
as bulwarks against federal expansion. On the other hand, it vigorously
supported the Equal Rights Amendment, though the ERA was of course never
ratified: proving that the ACLU is not simply engaged in preserving the
Constitution as it already exists, but is bent on filling selected provisions of
the Constitution with socialist substance, regardless of the original meaning of
And in a broader sense, it is obvious that the ACLU and liberalism in general
are not concerned with preserving the actual way of life the Constitution
shelters. We may recall Burke's words about those sympathizers of the French
Revolution who behaved "as if our Constitution were rather to be a subject of
altercation than enjoyment." These are restless people, people not always aware
of their own motives, not explicitly aiming at a socialist outcome, but deeply
alienated from the normal social affections of Americans and feeling that a
compulsion to change old arrangements is in itself a moral virtue.
Such people find it hard to enjoy or appreciate normal social life; they see
it all as a perpetual and spreading emergency, in which, if an apocalypse is not
immediately looming, we are at least faced with crucial test-cases of our
devotion to freedom. If some misfit or malcontent--Communist, homosexual,
radical feminist--is not accommodated by law, all our freedoms are endangered.
They day-to-day freedoms everyone (including misfits) exercises constantly count
for next to nothing. These people take no satisfaction in an overall prosperity:
the existence of pockets of poverty, though the poverty is only relative, makes
the general wealth a "scandal."
Not only are these people restless; they will allow the majority no repose.
We must never congratulate ourselves on what we have already achieved and
inherited; if our common possessions have any value at all, they are currently
threatened by a Republican Administration, a Moral Majority, or some similar
fascist menace. The witchhunt and the Inquisition (though never the Gulag) are
The tiles of liberal books tell the story by their tone: The Fate of the
Earth, The Closing Circle, The Population Bomb, Our Endangered Rights, Friendly
Fascism, The Second Civil War. And though the sentimental fashion is for
apocalypse, the threat never comes from the socialist tyrannies that rule half
the earth; the preferred enemy, as James Burnham has put it, is always to the
right. The white race is the cancer of history; the entire male sex is a
conspiracy against women; Ronald Reagan has launched a new class war; Nestle's
is killing babies, and Jerry Falwell would deprive us of the right to kill
Liberalism has been in a state of hysteria for two decades, not only because
this is its mood but also because it can't imagine a state of equilibrium. It
tends constantly toward socialism without even being able to idealize socialism.
It is obsessed with process without having a clear vision of nature, of
normality. Lacking such a vision, it can't appreciate the good that is right
under its nose.
Shafarevich thinks that socialism is driven by a "death wish"--a secret
desire for the annihilation of humanity. This may or may not be so, but we have
no need of that hypothesis. We can say for certain that what distinguishes the
liberal is an incapacity for pleasure in the ordinary rhythms of life. It is
hard to imagine a liberal taking enjoyment in the introspection that sustains a
Montaigne, aloof from the agitations of politics, fashion, and competition,
willing to be eccentric in solitude and to find amusement in the pageant of
The liberal may not wish for death, but it is hard for the conservative to
understand why he is so anxious for the preservation of a life that liberal
rhetoric suggests is always precarious and never fulfilled. Is there nver to be
a moment for harvest and thanksgiving, for idleness or celebration? Apparently
not. Although liberals are intelligent people, by and larye, even what we call
"intellectuals," they have a remarkable penchant for causes and slogans in whcih
their individuality is submerged, and whatever powers of expression they may
have seem to be sacrificed in a positive aspiration to cliche--as if they feel
their ready-made phrases gain authority by repetition. Not only do they form
"the herd of independent minds": they are always in stampede, marching,
petitioning, chanting. They are accused of elitism, but they are happiest when
they feel themselves part of a surging mass.
In fact one important and malign development in American culture is that the
scholar (who lives the life of the mind in relative seclusion from events) has
been displaced by the intellectual (who tries to conscript scholarship for mass
movements). The intellectual is wrongly seen as living in an "ivory tower"; he
is in the streets, an "activist." The problem is not that the liberal
intellectual is critical of America--self-criticism is necessary even to
conservation--but that he criticizes by the wrong criteria. He blames America
not for departing from her traditions, but that he criticizes by the wrong
criteria. He blames America not for departing from her traditions, but for
adhering to them. He measures her against the false ideals of socialism, less
because he is a conscious socialist than because he doesn't know how to
criticize socialist criteria themselves. They are all he has.
The Jews are a highly self-critical people, but they judge themselves by a
centripetal standard: Are we acting loyally? The liberal American, on the other
hand, demands of his country not an intensification of loyalty but an
attenuation of it. He sneers at the motion of patriotism, demands tolerance for
subversives, and wants local attachments to be dissolved in the waters of a
generalized concern for "humanity." American history for him is largely a record
of his country's sins--against blacks, Indians, dissenters. At times it seems
that his only identity is a negative one of shame. He is, as I say, alienated
--a sort of native alien.
V. THE 'LIBERAL' STRATEGY
SOCIALISM is usually discussed in terms of its alleged ideals--"social
justice" and the like--and most conservative rebuttal has taken the form of
showing that it doesn't "work": that is, that the alleged ideals of socialism
aren't realized under socialism. This is true enough, but it is relevant to note
that the enthusiasts of socialism have never felt so disappointed as to abandon
the dream. For the socialist ruling class, socialism works very well.
Nothing is more obviously characteristic of the socialist impulse than the
desire to redistribute wealth. But the end--"social justice"--is less important
than the means--the power to control an entire economy.
In its raw, wholesale form, socialism confiscates outright. Land is seized,
major landowners are shot, farming is collectivized under state supervision. The
produe is taken by the state, which unilaterally sets farmworkers' wages at a
considerable profit to itself. Since there are no competing employers to bid for
the workers' services, the workers have no choice but to accept what they are
given. This is, of course, enslavement.
Trotsky appreciated this practical advantage of socialism. When the state is
the sole employer, he remarked, disobedience means death by slow starvation. And
the Soviet Union actually starved about seven million Ukrainian farmers during
the early Thirties in order to implement what Stalin blandly called his
"collective-farm policy" against recalcitrant elements.
Those who seek power have a natural interest in creating dependency on
themselves. Where limited government and the rule of law prevail, politicians
can do this only to a limited extent, through appointments and a certain amount
of patronage. In this regard, socialism has opened new vistas: where the state
can command a whole economy, it can make millions dependent on it for life
itself. It is in this sense that socialism "works," and the socialist ruler
isn't necessarily inconvenienced by the scarcity the system causes: the more
desperate the people, the more they are at his mercy. Why should he want them to
enjoy leisure and independent means? In such circumstances rebellions have been
Liberalism--retail socialism--doesn't seek the direct confiscation of
property; although it furtively admires such policies abroad, it knows they
would make bitter enemies and create organized opposition in America. It prefers
incremental measures: progressive taxation, redistributive programs of a
piecemeal sort, regulations on the use of private property, inheritance taxes.
It resents being identified as socialist, and pretends its assorted measures are
"pragmatic," ideologically unrelated to one another. It proceeds gradually,
masking the principle involved even as it is consistently guided by principle:
at every step it moves toward socialism, and furiously attacks any proposal to
rescind its progress.
Liberalism is tactful. Its modus operandi is to anaesthetize its victims. It
rarely seizes property that is already physically possessed; it prefers to
intercept wealth at the transmission points, through such devices as withholding
taxes, so that the owner's loss is regularized and made painless. It makes good
use of inflation: in combination with the graduated tax system, inflation drives
the entire population into higher tax brackets without the necessity of a sudden
tax increase, "bracket creep" being liberalism's version of the Invisible Hand;
and since inflation makes it hard for people to save for retirement, the elderly
are made more and more dependent on Social Security, which can be adjusted
upward to keep pace with inflation by the inflaters themselves. The whole system
is just a little too complicated for everyone to comprehend at once, and those
who penetrate the fraud, after all, are only a minority of the electorate.
Any politician who is rash enough to challenge the dependency programs can be
put back in his place by a spate of fearful demagogy calculated to terrify and
enrage dependent voters. He will be accused of "lacking compassion." If he tries
to represent the interests of taxpayers against these programs (which, if the
Tenth Amendment and the Federalist Papers are any guide, are unconstitutional at
the federal level), he will be accused of representing "greed" and "favoring the
rich." Liberalism, of course professes to speak for "the poor," even though,
given a choice between the poor themselves and a program whose real effect is to
hurt the poor, it will choose the program.
"The poor" are to liberalism roughly what "the proletariat" is to
Communism--a formalistic device for legitimating the assumption of power. What
matters, for practical liberals, is not that (for example) the black
illegitimacy rate has nearly tripled since the dawn of the Great Society; it is
that a huge new class of beneficiaries has been engendered--beneficiaries who
vote, and who feel entitled to money that must be taken from others. It is too
seldom pointed out that a voter is a public official, and that the use of
proffered entitlements to win votes amounts to bribery. For this reason John
Stuart Mill pronounced it axiomatic that those who get relief from the state
should be disfranchised. But such a proposal would now be called inhuman, which
helps account for the gargantuan increase in the size and scope of federal
spending. Corrupt politicians make headlines; but no honest politician dares to
refer to the problem of corrupt voters, who use the state as an instrument of
And nobody identifies this sort of gain with "greed." To hear liberalism talk
(largely uncontradicted by conservatism), greed is exclusively a vice of private
people operating in an economy of free exchange. "Compassion" is identified with
redistribution by the state. Greed, in short, means capitalism, and compassion
Conservatives have adopted various economic and pragmatic strategies for
coping with redistributionism. One of the most publicized has been the
"supply-side" approach, which argues that the way to maximize revenues is to
reduce tax rates to a certain optimum level. High tax rates can be
self-defeating even from the tax collector's point of view. True enough. But the
supply-siders made the mistake of thinking they were dealing with economists
rather than ideologues. They were arguing that the goose, given a little more
latitude, would lay more golden eggs. But the liberals didn't want the golden
eggs; they wanted the goose. It was not a matter of utility but of
principle--perverse principle, but principle all the same. Conservatives have to
stop being shy about arguing from the opposite principle.
Consider the implications of the word "compassion." As used by liberalism, it
implies that we owe a duty of sympathy, payable in cash through the liberal
regime, to total strangers, a duty, in other words, to be discharged through
acquiescence in redistributionism. The simplest reply is that the world doesn't
work that way, and it is morally presumptuous to censure nature for that fact.
Even kindhearted people take no satisfaction in beholding the portion of their
paychecks that has been taken in taxes, regardless of whether they can infer
that some of the money has gone to aid the poor. As far as they are concerned,
the money is simply gone, they know not where, and the effort expended in
earning it was wasted. A sense of futility ensues--the futility of all action
divorced from knowable consequence and purpose. How can they feel compassion for
others they can neither know nor see? Who can possibly feel satisfaction when
looking at the withheld portion of a gutted paycheck?
There are natural limits to our sympathies, limits liberalism can only
condemn, never respect. And there is no reason to credit its attitude with
"idealism." A robin that took worms to every nest in the forest would be an
ideal robin; it would only be an odd bird. And liberals are odd birds. They
insist, in effect, that we should be ashamed of ourselves for being unable to
feel pity for strangers who, as far as we are concerned, are strictly
hypothetical. We don't even have any assurance that the wealth we lose in taxes
is serving its alleged purposes. We are expected to trust politicians (who
themselves are not to be confused with Mother Teresa of Calcutta) to act more
compassionately than we ourselves would in the normal course of life.
People will not exert themselves for the redistributionist state, and not
because they are selfish, but because they are rational. To act is to be
purposeful; when a man doesn't even know what purpose his action has served, he
can hardly be said to have acted at ll; his effort has been rendered meaningless
to him. He is, as the Marxists would say, alienated.
It would be inadequate to say that redistribution reduces profits; it
deprives human action of the tangible results that make it even intelligible.
Working for money is already a somewhat abstract form of activity; working for
money that will be spent by strangers on other strangers means that the worker
literally doesn't know what he is doing.
Any system taht disposes of wealth this way is, to begin with, demoralizing
to its members. It routinely asks of people an altruism that is not so much
heroic as simply unnatural, and it is idle to seek morality in a system whose
roots are in fantasy. But positing a fantasy as a norm is a useful device of
mystification, and liberalism has gained and consolidated power by alternately
imposing new political obligations and releasing people from traditional family
obligations, by this means approaching a total politicization of both society
and personal identity.
And for liberalism there is no stopping point. As a species of socialism, it
can't draw a firm line against socialism; it can only go on improvising new
occasions and excuses for increasing the power of the state. As a form of
Alienism, it keeps finding or inventing new exceptions to undermine rules: and
it has kept a rich and overfed nation (whose supermarket checkout counters have
racks of tabloids full of Miracle Diets) gearing its politics to poverty and
hunger. When all else fails, liberal ideologues speak of "invisible" poverty and
"hidden" hunger, in a sort of reverse on the Emperor's New Clothes. Michael
Harrington, the great consciousness-raiser in this department, urges us to
ignore mere statistics (that is, facts) and "perceive passionately." We have
been taught that we must tax Peter to feed Paul, even a supposititious Paul; it
is hard not to feel that the liberal regards feeding Paul as a mere excuse for
taxing Peter. He is not solving problems (they always seem to be worse after he
has favored them with his attentions) but creating an ideal order of his own, at
whatever cost to reality.
Nor has liberalism acknowledged any limitation on the taxing power. The good
Lord asks only 10 per cent, lacking as He does liberalism's ambition. Now, the
taxing power is a serious power, since prison terms await tax evaders. Yet the
daily press brings stories of the frivolous use of tax moneys, in reports of
federally financed research on the love life of goldfish and the like, reports
that amuse us, but that also intimate the anarchy of modern government. Anarchy,
as Chesterton reminds us, consists not in doing something irregular, but in
being unable to stop. And liberalism has no desire to stop.
Mill remarks that progressive taxation is "a mild form of robbery"; Friedrich
Hayek points out that it "provides for no limitation" and recommends as a reform
that the top tax rate apply to the majority of citizens, so that they will not
be tempted to hurt others more than they are willing to be hurt themselves. "I
voted for Mitterrand because he promised to make the rick pay," a middle-class
French woman lamented to a reporter a few years ago. "Now the government tells
us that we are the rich!"
George Will insists that we are "undertaxed," an opinion shared only by our
elected representatives. To say that is not so much to err as to misstate the
issue. The question is not how much the state should tax us, but for what
purposes; which is another way of raising the fundamental question of what
government is for. Governing, says Oakeshott, is "a specific and limited
activity." When the powers of the Federal Government were specific and
limited--"few and defined," as James Madison put it--taxes were low. They were
held down not so much quantitatively as constitutionally, even, so to speak,
philosophically. When the power of government is unfocused and unlimited, its
power of taxing will be correspondingly great.
Promiscuous taxation has turned us into a nation of defendants. Not only
property rights but the right of privacy and the presumption of innocence have
been casualties of the limitless state and its taxing power. Every adult citizen
must give a full annual account of his finances to the government, with the
burden of proof resting on him if any questions are raised.
This state of affairs ought to enrage us, but doesn't. It evokes no protest
from leftist "civil libertarians" who see threats to our precious liberties in
public-school prayer. We take for granted the materialist premises of the
liberal regime so thoroughly that, although the idea of a religious inquisition
horrifies us, the actuality of an economic inquisition, armed to extort highly
personal information from us, is second nature. It may be that our horror of the
Spanish Inquisition is due less to our love of liberty than to the simple fact
that we have become an irreligious people. We accept the huge and frightening
apparatus of economic surveillance and enforcement much as most Spaniards no
doubt accepted their Inquisition, that is, as an unpleasant institution that is
nonetheless entailed in a whole way of life. We acknowledge its right to do
these things to us.
And yet we don't--not completely. The redistributive regime is at odds with
our moral habits, even with our nature, which is why so much menace and power
have to be mobilized against us. Tax evasion has become as common as drinking
under Prohibition; one survey found that three of every four people questioned
would not turn in a tax cheat. And tax shelters--some permitted by the IRS,
others more or less capriciously disallowed--have proliferated.
The person who seeks a tax shelter has nothing to be ashamed of. The money,
if honestly acquired, is his. He instinctively tries to protect it from
absorption in the federal bog, where it would lose its identity, its rationale,
and would be channeled to heave knows what purposes.
The money, in other words, was his property; it was "proper" to him. The
Framers of the Constitution were emphatically partial not only to property
rights, but to the right of acquiring property. One of the great political and
legal battles of the eighteenth century concerned the freeing of property from
the constraints of primogeniture and entailment, which had limited the rights of
disposition and exchange; "property rights" had truly been, to some extent,
rights of property rather than of men. Our "commercial republic," as it was
called, was to honor and protect "different and unequal faculties of acquiring
property"--in a word, opportunity.
Property rights are hard to justify or even to explain to those who begin
with a utopian disposition, because property is always concrete, here and now,
irregular and unequal, even incommensurable. It can't be equated with its market
value. Every human being needs to possess something, to have a little area of
sovereignty over the material world, in order both to express his will and to
guarantee his independence. The power of disposing of matter will belong to
someone, and ownership is society's acknowledgment of a continuing right of that
power in a given individual. If it is not settled by law and convention, it will
be settled by force. Stalin virtually owned the entire Soviet Union--and
everyone in it--because there were no property rights. Property is, among other
things, a base for freedoms; when it goes, freedom perishes.
Socialist rhetoric has done wonders to obscure the nature and positive value
of property rights; it implies that these rights, because they are unequal in
their effect, are mere expressions of raw power. But in fact they are safeguards
against such power. Like all genuine laws and rights, they protect the weak
against the strong. They proclaim that what a man owns can't be taken from him
without his consent; they prevent the chaos of what Burke calls "a general
scramble" for physical possession. It is not the property of the rich and
powerful that needs protecting, but the property of the poor, and the right of
the poor to acquire property.
Socialism begins its course with an envious campaign against the rich, but it
ends, of course, in universal subjugation. The opportunity of acquisition, on
the other hand, is conducive to social peace; and Tocqueville ascribed the
domestic tranquillity of America to the circumstance that property ownership was
nearly universal. Everyone had something to enjoy, something to appreciate,
something to lose. Burke defended the English system as an essentially happy
one, because "it leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires."
Most of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is a polemic against
revolutionary "confiscation" and a vindication of "the security of property."
Conservatives should pay close attention to the form of his argument. Though he
was a fervent champion of the free market (Adam Smith said he found he had
nothing to teach Burke, so closely did they agree), his emphasis is always on
the right to property, the security of property, as the basis of free and
civilized society, and as the first target of tyranny's attacks. From that right
and that security prosperity flows naturally. But our first consideration is the
lawful security of property itself, not the maximizing of wealth. The free
market derives from private property. It is impossible without it. Calvin
Coolidge said sagely: "The prime element in the value of any property is the
knowledge that its peaceful enjoyment will be publicly defended." In maintaining
property rights, therefore, the state is not "doing nothing." It is doing all it
can do for liberty and prosperity alike.
The settled rule of law is therefore like a high credit rating for a whole
society. The project of "building a new society" is vain in part because,
although the state can destroy suddenly, permanence takes a little more time.
The business of innovating, so widely assumed to be a glorious political
adventure, is usually a great vice. But in our time innovation has become a sort
of venerable custom. Burke and Madison alike would have been shocked at the
levity with which modern governments inflate their currencies; sober men of
their time rightly recognized inflation as an outright crime, the moral and
virtual equivalent of private counterfeiting.
So committed was Burke to property rights and economic freedom that he
denounced as immoral government measures to relieve a famine. To his mind this
was not callousness but strict political morality. If we disagree, we can at
least appreciate from experience the readiness with which departures from
principle turn into permanent habits. When the state becomes absorbed in
activities not proper to governing, it neglects its essential functions. The
crime rate in America--a far worse problem for the poor than hunger--bears
witness to that.
It is true, as liberalism says (a little too often), that there are limits to
property rights. But what liberalism really means, as its own practice
testifies, is that there are no limits to the violation of property rights.
There is always some excuse--safety, civil rights, poverty--for a new spending
program, a new regulation. We have ceased regarding departures from the norm as
abnormal. We have nearly forgotten what the norm is.
Redistribution can only consume wealth and dry up its springs. New wealth is
created by imaginative men who have the freedom to acquire and use property, and
the insight to appreciate the latent value of natural objects. It is the
economic imagination--which is entirely beyond the calculations of
economists--that turns natural objects into natural resources. It was Henry Ford
who created the oil wealth of Arabia. It was Silicon Valley that saw a world in
a grain of sand.
The free market is an arena of constant, daily little acts of appreciation,
in which people surrender bits of their property in exchange for things they
value more. To the socialist mind, this is mere chaos, a riot of maldistribution
calling for a firm correcting hand. To the buyers and sellers, it is an ocean of
opportunity to fashion their own worlds, domestic empires each with its unique
kind of order. It is a riot of happy sacrifices.
There is no reason to idealize the market, but there is every reason to
appreciate it. The socialist can't appreciate it, because he can't appreciate
appreciation. But the order of the market, with all its irregularity and
unpredictability, is better than any order he can envision. He denounces the
profit motive, while he thinks of his own power motive as an innocent and even
noble thing. In order to prosper as a capitalist, you have to please people. In
order to prosper as a socialist, you have to threaten them. That distinction is
worth appreciating too.
The market, in other words, is civil: men meet there as free equals. The
socialist tells them they are unfree and unequal; he points a gun at them and
tells them they are now his equals. And for some reason the wretches are
But the market, even more than the voting booth, is an institution of
consent. Nobody has to accept another's price. There, as Kenneth Minogue puts
it, conflict is turned into competition under rules of conduct. And this is what
socialism finally fails to appreciate. It can only interpret orderly competition
as "disguised" conflict or coercion, not as an essentially different thing. It
blames the very system that tames desire for inflaming desire. It fails to see
that desire is unquenchable; it fails to comprehend its own desires and the
conflict it reintroduces into what was civilized life. It seeks to protect by
coercing, never dreaming that it is the very thing civilized men need protection
VI. SEX, ETC.
THE SOCIALIST VISION of a social order in which all share with all--driven by
what Robert Heilbroner calls "new motives of cooperation and confraternity"--is
sheer sentimentalism. But the socialist's conception of the alternative--a
society of unfettered greed and selfishness--is sheer cynicism. It is perfectly
normal for people to share, to take satisfaction in generosity, but they don't
do so impersonally, anonymously, through the medium of the state. A man may give
a million dollars to a specific child or charity, but he won't leave a single
dollar in the street as a gesture of benevolence to the next person who happens
to come along. Such undifferentiated bounty is not in our nature, because we are
rational creatures (more or less) who like to know what we are doing.
Love makes the world go round, all right, but the love in question is not a
boundless love of all manking--which may be an ideal, of sorts, but is pretty
useless as a social norm. In the long run the most reliable kind of love is
family affection. This is neither altruistic nor selfish and therefore eludes
the socialist's false dichotomy. A man regards his children as extensions of
himself. It is hardly selfish of him to work long hours to provide for them,
enduring hardships that would strike a carefree bachelor as an absurd waste of
short life. On the other hand, the father's sacrifice is not what we regard as
philanthropy, because we understand that he has a certain emotional investment
in his children. This common and intermediate kind of love makes up the fabric
Since the Sixties America has learned in the dear school of experience what
it would not submit to learn from tradition: that the breakdown of the family
means social disorder. We were told incessantly that "poverty causes crime,"
even as crime rates soared along with general prosperity and special
anti-poverty measures. A more telling correlation occurred between crime and
illegitimacy, as fatherless young men terrorized the cities.
George Gilder points out that young single men, who make up only 13 per cent
of the population, commit 90 per cent of the violent crime. An even more
disproportionate number of these men have grown up with their fathers absent. We
shouldn't need careful statistical studies to confirm the intuition that
children need parents to give them love and to initiate them into the traditions
of the human race; anyone who has warm memories of his own parents will shudder
with pity for those who miss the primal affections of childhood --surely a worse
deprivation than mere relative poverty.
And yet the Alienist disposition is so preoccupied with the hard case that it
will sacrifice the family in order to succor the orphan. It is as if the
existence of families somehow constitutes an injustice to those who don't have
them. Families create what socialism calls "privileges" and "accidents of
birth," and result in what socialism sees as "gross inequities." Socialism
(including liberalism) is always "correcting for" the family, finding fault with
the family, monitoring the family for pathologies (wife beating, child abuse,
incest) that can be invoked to warrant state intervention. Children must be
accorded "rights" against their own parents, and education must be reformed, on
what Chesterton calls "the principle that a parent is more likely to be cruel
than anyone else." Sweden has even passed a law against parental cruelty that
defines spanking and harsh words as "child abuse," punishable by the state.
In a natural reaction against this, conservatives are prone to glorify the
family, as if they had never heard of Agamemnon or King Lear. The truth, as C.
S. Lewis reminds us, is that since Adam fell every human institution has had a
fatal tendency to go bad. Lewis points to the "savage anti-domestic literature,"
typified by Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, that arose in reply to the
Victorian sentimentalization of the family.
But the real fault is not in the family itself. It lies in human pride,
egotism, sloth, blindness, and all the other defects that can pervert our most
intimate affections and make the home a hell even where there is nothing to
provoke the attentions of Swedish social workers. We fail in love all the time.
Real love, which has been aptly defined as "practical concern," takes patience,
perseverance, imagination, restraint, and simple good manners.
The point is not that the family is perfect but that there is no substitute
for it. If parents fail in the domestic virtues, if children choose to
misbehave, there is not much anyone can do. No social program could have saved
The modern state, in trying to disregard, improve, or supersede the family,
has done far more harm than good. Family violence in our time is almost a joke
compared with the violence inflicted by the state. And part of the harm done by
the state lies in its attempts to "liberate" people from family ties, while
increasing its own demands on them.
Santayana remarked that the only thing the modern liberal wants to liverate
man from is the marriage contract. And it is true that the liberal passion for
sexual freedom seems an anomaly, set against the liberal's general penchant for
augmenting state power at every turn. But Igor Shafarevich has explained the
apparent anomaly as an essential feature of "the socialist phenomenon."
Traditional sexual morality, Shafarevich says, makes the family a locus of
loyalty and authority. Sexual freedom breaks down the sacred bonds of kinship
and deprive sex of its sacramental character. It profanes. It reduces us to
interchangeable units in a mass, and destroys the intricate social structure of
particular ties that impedes state power. Every socialist movement has included
a campaign for what is variously called sexual freedom, free lovve, or community
of wives. Once in power, of course, a socialist regime may be prudish and
puritanical, but this is only because it wants to regulate the populace's
breeding habits and control its general behavior, not because it wants to
restore the autonomy of the family. The Soviet regime has conducted an erratic
population policy: legalizing, banning, and then again legalizing abortion;
promoting birth control, then encouraging even illegitimate births. There is no
real inconsistency in these fluctuations: the very phrase "population policy"
means that the birth rate has become a subject of state concern--one more
production standard to be set by the authorities.
Liberalism may be faintly embarrassed by certain twists in such Communist
policies, but it is essentially at home with the whole idea of "population
policy." It looks on the statist approach to reproduction as "progressive,"
though it dares to be fully explicit about this only where "backward" nations
are concerned. In domestic discussion, the liberal plays down the prospect of
state supervision and stresses personal "choice"--in premarital sex,
homosexuality, birth control, divorce, and abortion. But he isn't really
indifferent to the choices people actually make. More or less consciously, he is
aware that he is promoting some forms of behavior at the expense of others.
Liberals profess, for example, to be "pro-choice" in the matter of abortion,
and they resent being described as "pro-abortion." But when it transpired that
Communist China has been imposing not only mandatory birth control but forced
late-term abortion, liberal objections were curiously muted. Some openly
justified the Chinese policy on the grounds that China has a serious
overpopulation problem. (The state, it was assumed, should have the prerogative
of deciding when a country is "overpopulated" and of prescribing remedies. So
much for "choice.") A group of liberal congressmen even had an amicable lunch
with visiting administrators of the Chinese population-control program.
Again and again we find proof in liberal behavior that "liberalism" is not
what it pretends to be. It pretends to be concerned with procedural freedoms;
but its concerns nearly always turns out to mask a substantive agenda, the
actual substance of which is socialist. This is the key to all the notorious
"double standards" of liberal behavior. Free speech is demanded for the
subversive of the Left--not, the liberal assures us, because he favors the Left,
but because all points of view should be heard. But (as conservatives in such
liberal strongholds as the academy and the mass media have discovered) the
liberal will often take active measures to prevent "reactionary" views from
being heard. Behind every double standard lurks an unacknowledged single
standard: promoting socialism.
Consider another apparent contradiction of liberal behavior. The liberal
argues for state-subsidized abortion on the grounds that a woman who can't
afford to exercise her "right" to abortion is effectively denied that right. But
when conservatives (and those maverick liberals who actually mean what they say)
propose a system of educational vouchers that would enable poor parents to
choose schools for their children, the liberal community abandons the logic it
adopts for abortion. It condemns private education as a "privilege" (while
helping to keep it so) or a subterfuge for racism. What emerges from this
contradition is the inference that liberals don't regard parental choice in
education as a serious right.
A further inference is that liberals don't regard education itself as a
parental prerogative. They want public schools to have a monopoly (some of them
openly advocate the abolition of private schools), and they want those schools
to be rigorously secularized, with religion strictly excluded. What about
parents who regard religion as central to education? The liberals' answer is
contained in their stony silence on this question.
The secularized public school, ironically, now enjoys the status of an
established church. Everyone has to support it. If a dissenter prefers a
different school system, he must pay for that himself, and his doing so in no
way diminishes his obligation to support the established system. He can expect
no sympathy from the keepers of the establishment--only thingly veiled
It is instructive to notice when the liberal resorts to the rhetoric of
"choice" and when he abruptly drops it. There is a consistency behind his
inconsistency. His alleged neutrality about substance tactically serves a body
of very positive commitments.
Not that all liberals are fully conscious of a hostility to the family. Far
from it. But liberalism inexorably chips away at any preferred status for the
family. Its method is not to abolish but to neglect and "redefine." It will say
that our traditional concept of the family is "outmoded" and "unrealistic." It
will "broaden" the concept to include, for example, households of
homosexuals--again, professing to be "value-free" when affirming the right of
homosexuals to adopt children. (How can you be neutral about "values" when
announcing a "right"?)
The combination of graduated tax rates, inflation, and redistributive
programs has had a punitive effect on the family, reducing the personal
exemption to a fraction of its original value (roughly one-fifth of what it was
worth in 1948). This has made large families prohibitively expensive for many
people; the number of working mothers has tripled since World War II. The
liveral regime has never said, in so many words, that it opposes large families;
but does anyone suppose that it is merely "neutral" about them? Is it anxious to
ensure them "equal opportunity" with small families, or childless couples, or
even homosexual couples?
It is interesting to note that New York City was recently found to be
subsidizing a special private school for homosexual youths. City officials
insisted that the subsidy in no way implied approval. The same officials would
insist that even a slight subsidy to a private religious school would fatally
compromise the state's neutrality in religion. The total pattern of liberal
concerns tells its own story over the head, so to speak, of all liberalism's ad
hoc justifications of its particular policies.
More and more parents see the public schools as threats to their children's
safety, well-being, and even educational needs. Liberalism's response has been
to tighten its own grip. It accuses parents of "failing" in sex education, for
example, and assumes that this constitutes a mandate for the schools to do the
job. It may be, of course, that parents also fail in religious education, but
here again liberalism switches its logic according to the issue at hand. Parents
whose children are economically trapped in the public schools are denied any
right to control the curriculum: their attempts to exercise even a veto power
over materials selected by teachers is denounced as "censorship." The minds of
the young must be kept under the liberal monopoly, no matter how egregiously the
public schools themselves may be thought to fail.
Liberalism has of course had a serious impact on the general culture beyond
the schools. The catch-phrase "freedom of expression" has been broadened to
cover even the crudest pornography. What began as a campaign for
"privacy"--consenting adults, plain brown wrappers, and all that--has become an
open overthrow of traditional public morality. It is practically impossible to
shield children from raw filth. What used to be called fornication is now a
standard feature of popular entertainment, even on prime-time television. The
degrees of explicitness vary; the denigration of chastity is nearly complete,
however, even where the bodies remain clothed. Americans stand helpless as the
cultural pimps go to work on their children.
And once again liberal takes refuge in cliches and "choice" and "freedom"
that are in flagrant contrast to their usual preference for government control.
The liberal who is ordinarily hostile to commercialism and suspicious of the
manipulative wiles of advertisers becomes an advocate of utter laissez-faire
where the stimulation of sexual appetites is at stake.
What is sad, and horrible, is the crassness of it. At one time the liberal
held at least the aesthetic high ground. It was the censor, with his narrow
anxieties, who seemed crass, ready to ban from the local library any book that
dealt frankly with serious subjects. But it is no longer the banning of Ulysses
that is in question. No genuinely artistic purpose is served by 99 per cent of
the sexual themes of popular entertainment; no Renaissance has come of the
baring of breasts in public. It is as if, as the old taboos have fallen, new
taboos have taken their place--taboos on the spiritual. Popular culture has
adopted a general smirk. If the movies were really candid, they would show
people praying, marrying, and having children as well as fornicating; the
fornication might at least occasionally result in pregnancy, disease, and the
heartache and shame that more than occasionally accompany such inverterate
behavior in real life.
Have liberals had any regrets or second thoughts about the sexual revolution?
Of course. At the personal level, many liberals recoil from the pron explosion.
Some of them must have notice that the "new freedom" has failed to pay the
promised dividends in serious art--that nudity is a distraction rather than an
enhancement of aesthetic experience.
But the liberal ideology has no way of accommodating these human
reservations. It can only propose more programs, bigger budgets for government
research for cures for the latest venereal diseases, new campaigns to "educate"
the public about the real consequences of behavior that has now been declared
licit. And the remedies are as crass as the malady. The real problem is that
sexual freedom has meant, for millions of people, a cluster of debasing
Socialist utopianism has gone hand in hand with sexual utopianism. Many
people who would never buy into the socialist delusion have fallen hard for the
sexual one. But the price--in disease, abortion, guilt, frustration, hostility,
suspicion, and coarseness--has yet to be acknowledged. The feminist movement,
with its bitterness against men, is at least an understandable reaction against
all the lies of sexual "liberation," which has been particularly injurious and
insulating to women; there was no such movement or general mood in the days when
marriage was the norm. A woman was expected to be chaste; and though this was
derided as a double standard, it gave woman a special protection against male
aggression. There was no confusion about what a lecherous man was asking of her.
She had the right not only to refuse, but to take offense at improper advances.
If women could be virgins again, there would be no feminism. Women are now fair
game for the men who prize them least, and they know it, and they resent it, and
they are right; but they also know that to speak of a woman's "honor" is to
sound ridiculously quaint. By the same token, a man's honor used to consist
largely in respect for woman's; that has changed too. Is everybody happy?
The sexual revolution that was declared in the name of privacy has resulted
in a gross devaluation of privacy--the intuition that there are recesses of
personality that deserve to be withheld from easy exposure. The more of a think
that can be seen at a glance, the less there is of it in the first place. Human
beings are mysteries; they deserve to be respected as mysteries, not stripped
open like a cellophane package. Sex is delicate; it deserves to be handled with
delicate restraint and ritual. Society should be organized so as to prevent the
tyranny of boors and the prevalence of an easy-sex culture. Young people should
be protected from making irreversible mistakes, and taught that love is a
career, not a vacation.
People do fail in love, all the time. That is why the essential kinds of love
need social support. The problem is that we are currently giving our support not
so much to the wrong people as to the wrong side of our nature, the side that
wants love on the cheap. We are offening human beings the kind of freedom
appropriate to dogs. The "gain" they experience is really part of an overal
We get what we pay for. What is natural--natural to human beings, as distinct
from animals--is not necessarily easy, but that is all the more reason to insist
on its. The price is high, but the rewards of loyalty and fidelity are
priceless. To be a parent is more than a joy; it is to be related to the world
in a radically different way from the way of youth, to see another who is not
"wholly other," but a strangely free part of yourself.
Every parent knows this; the wonder is that a knowledge so widely shared no
longer forms the heart of our law and culture. It is almost as if parental
affection has become a love that dare not speak its name, instead of being the
social reality from which all other things take their bearings. To love a child
is to love uniquely. It is astonishingly insentive to denigrate as "privilege"
or "accident of birth" the parent's deep desire to give. From the perspective of
the receiver, every gift is an accident. No child asks to be born; life is a
gift. The first accident of birth is birth. It becomes the child to learn
gratitude for this, though it is best if the parents don't insist on gratitude.
Of course no parent is perfect. To have a child under the best of
circumstances is to court tragedy, not to mention the disapproval of population
planners. All one can say is that most of humanity has always found it worth the
risks, for reasons that are hard to explain to outsiders, such as the people who
write editorials in the New York Times. It is as well not to be too calculating
about having babies, who will upset all calculations anyway. As Chesterton says,
"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." Even King Lear might
VII. ORGANIZED IRRELIGION
IN THE Catholic Church it takes several centures for a doctrine to become a
dogma. In progressive circles the same process can be achieved within months.
There is no institution from which the progressive is so deeply alienated as
from religion--or, as he calls it, "organized" religion, as if religion would be
all right if only believers avoided association with each other. He can
reconcile himself to the idea of a spontaneous internal belief, provided the
believer stands under no ecclesiastical authority.
The enemy, for socialism, is any permanent authority, whether it is a
long-standing church or a holy scripture, whose tendency is to put a brake on
political power. In fact power and authority are often confused nowadays: the
thoroughly politicized man who seeks power can only experience and interpret
authority as a rival form of power, because it impedes his ambition for a
thoroughly politicized society. But authority is more nearly the opposite of
power. It offers a standard of truth or morality that is indifferent and
therefore often opposed to current desires and forces, standing in judgment over
them. If God has revealed Himself to man, the progressive agenda may find itself
For this reason, religion is a source of deep anxiety to the liberal. He
harps on its historical sins: Crusades, Inquisitions, witch burnings, wars. He
never notices that the crimes of atheist regimes, in less than a century, have
dwarfed those of all organized religions in recorded history. He sees
Christianity's sporadic persecutions as being of its essence; he regards
Communism's unbroken persecution as incidental to its potential for good. He
warns of the "danger" posed by American fundamentalists (one of the most gentle
and law-abiding segments of the population) and is unchastened by the results of
"peace" in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Religion offers, par excellence, anchorage in a tradition that can't be
altered to suit current interests, whereas the liberal wants liberal interests
to enjoy a sort of sacred status. He has his own orthodoxy, but it is a floating
orthodoxy that requires it votaries to adapt quickly and unpredictably, as new
occasions and passions dictate. To adhere to traditional doctrines (as on
abortion) is to be "divisive"; the sin of divisiveness is never imputed to the
innovation he would have us adopt at once. He wants to invest his novelties with
authority. He wants the church to become "relevant."
The liberal avoids a frontal assault on religion; he has no taste for
persecution, even if he turns a blind eye to it when socialists inflict it on
those believers he regards as reactionary. He typically expresses his objections
to religion in procedural terms: he isn't against religion, he merely favors the
"separation of church and state." But here his indifference to Communist
persecution gives him away: the very idea of separating church and state
presupposes firmly defined spheres for both. Without limited government, the
sphere of the church is merely residual, and the state may crowd it out of any
area of life the ruling power chooses to usurp, as when the Polish Communist
regime invoked the principle of separation to demand the removal of crucifixes
from all state classrooms, there being no other classrooms in Poland. (There was
no protest from liberals in the West against this campaign of religious
The liberal's ill-disguised uneasiness with religion recalls C.S. Lewis's
remark that some people say they dislike Milton's God when they really mean they
dislike God. The most the liberal can bring himself to say in favor of religion
is that it has given painters and poets and composers some pretty ideas from
time to time; that is about as far as his appreciation goes. For the rest,
religion in liberal rhetoric usually occupies the role of a dark and backward
force, and progress is measured by the distance we have come from the "Dark
Ages," the period of churchly ascendancy.
The liberal regime is one of virtual atheism; though it professes
agnosticism, as if this were a form of neutrality between belief and unbelief,
it constantly enlarges the range of the things that are Caesar's at the expense
of the things that are God's. There is never a wholesale rejection of religion,
only regular appeals to "pluralism" to justify stripping away features of the
Western moral tradition as they offend the progressive agenda of the moment. In
this way liberalism keeps the option of retaining what it likes of the Christian
heritage, while ruling out as sectarian whatever it doesn't like. The content of
"pluralism" in this way becomes a lowest common denominator that is continually
reduced to liberal specifications by liberal vetoes. The result is a piecemeal
apostasy that pretends to maintain continuity with the tradition it is
destroying. Liberalism thus gains a furtive monopoly over the political culture.
"Pluralism" serves, on the one hand, as an invitation to (say) homosexuals to
make demands on the polity and, on the other, as a prohibition against
Christians' doing the same.
Moreover, the current liberal position is asserted to be our constitutional
tradition, "the American Way." Robert L. Cord, among other scholars, has shown
this to be historical balderdash, since the first Congress after the
ratification of the Constitution expressly tried to promote the spread of
religion through the Northwest Ordinance, andseveral states retained their
religious establishments well into the nineteenth century. In refusing to create
a national religious establishments well into the nineneeth century. In refusing
to create a national religious establishment, the Framers of the Constitution
aimed not to exclude religion from public life but to allow it to operate
freely, on equal terms with other participants, and with all denominations on an
equal footing. The Declaration of Independence itself has openly theological
underpinnings. For the Founding Fathers, religion was a genuine way of knowing.
That the Federal Government did not profess competence in deciding religious
truth was no more a derogation of religion than its refusal to take sides in a
scientific controversy would be a derogation of science. Those who say otherwise
are reading their wishes into the Constitution.
Consider the endless debate over school prayer. The discussion begins and
ends with the problem of the outsider--the occasional Jewish child, the largely
hypothetical Buddhist--who would feel oppressed by having either to join the
class or to excuse himself from the morning benediction. It is remarkable that
the discussion never revolves around the possible benefits of prayer, e.g., that
the good Lord might actually shower blessings on the children. No though is
given to the needs of piety, the social value of reverence, the sublime joy of
adoration. The rights of the minority are of course a fully legitimate and
necessary consideration, in some cases decisive, but they are hardly the only
And we have been so obsessed with the question whether children should be
encouraged or pressured to worship that we have totally overlooked an equally
pertinent one, namely, whether children should even be informed about religion.
It is rather obvious that they should: that without understanding what people
have believed, they are disabled from fully understanding history, literature,
politics, and even each other. They remain ignorant of an area of concern that
by its nature is central to the lives of millions of people. How can a young
person even read Hamlet without understanding the Christian doctrines and
practices involved in the play's references to heaven, hell, purgatory, the
sacraments, revenge, and suicide? Is he to be exposed to sex education but
shielded from the beliefs of his own ancestors? Religious education is even a
secular necessity. The child who is deprived of it is to be pitied.
The prevailing notion is that the state should be "neutral" as to religion,
and furthermore that the best way to be neutral about it is to avoid all mention
of it. By this sort of logic, nudism is the best compromise among different
styles of dress. The secularist version of "pluralism" amounts to theological
nudism. We are not "imposing" our beliefs on others (whatever that means) when
we act on our beliefs. A culturally Christian society is not "discriminating
against" non-Christians when it draws on its own moral idiom in its
deliberations; what else can it use?
There is something strained and artificial about forcing ourselves to act as
if we didn't believe what we do in fact believe, just as much as if we were to
force ourselves to act on beliefs we didn't in fact hold. It is a little like
speaking pidging English in case a foreigner should happen to be present. As a
practical matter, of course, a man who doesn't believe in the Bible won't be
persuaded by arguments from Scripture; but this is no reflection on the right to
argue from Scripture. The atheist is equally free to argue from his own
premises, and equally at the mercy of those who find his premises irrelevant.
But a lowest common denominator should not be taken for a universal. Public
discussion can't very well be oriented to the solipsist; a man who doesn't
believe other men exist hardly has a claim on their deference. There are some
beliefs so widely shared that, as Chesterton puts it, those who reject them "are
not so much a minority as a monstrosity."
It may not clarify matters much to say that "America is a Christian society."
Many devout Christians will deny it, though they wish it were so; some
non-Christians may believe it, while wishing it weren't so. And if it is true in
some sense, maybe nothing is gained by having the state affirm it. Elizabethan
England and Byzantine Greece were both Christian societies, but in vastly
different ways. The particular way in which Christianity penetrates a given
culture is always subtle and hard to define, whether or not it is the official
religion. But by the same token, nothing is gained by insisting that secularist
"pluralism" is the American Way. It may be enough to say that America has a free
market in faith. Every pair of interlocutors has to feel its way to the terms of
its own special conversation.
There are even different styles of atheism. A visitor to Northern Ireland,
appalled by the violence between Catholics and Protestants, asked if there
weren't any atheists. "Oh yes," he was told. "We have Catholic atheists and
Protestant atheists." The bon mot has a serious point: unbelief may have its
roots in a former belief and take shape from it; atheism may be a Christian
A man may lose his faith innocently, by inability to believe. But he may also
refuse to believe. If faith is a gift, it is a gift that is sometimes rudely
rejected. Atheism as well as religion may be "wish-fulfillment," Lewis reminds
us: and, he sardonically observes, to this day people talk as if St. Augustine
had favored infant damnation. There is no simple correlation between desires and
creeds, and we are too charitable if we presume that the atheist is always
acting in good faith when he rejects faith.
There is such a thing as the pious atheist, the man who comes sadly to
unbelief, but with at least some appreciation of what he has lost. An ancient
Roman convert to Christianity need not have despised everything in the
polytheistic Roman culture; he might continue to love the Aeneid, the Pantheon,
the old myths and the art they inspired. We are still grateful that the
Christians didn't try to obliterate every trace of that culture, in the
fanatical spirit that led some Puritans to want to destroy all records of
English life before Cromwell's revolution.
A modern man who has lost the faith of his fathers will still, if he is
morally sane, treasure the heritage of that faith--not only the art of Dante,
Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, and Mozart, but the philosophy, science, law,
and general manners that have been generated by belief in a good Creator Who
made man in His image and gave His only Son to redeem our sinful race. Only a
boor could write all that off as bad or vain.
But there is also such a thing as organized irreligion, militant and
bloody-minded, despising the entire past. If you hear Rigoletto performed in
Moscow, you may be puzzled, as I was, to find that Gilda's dying aria is cut;
the problem, it transpires, is that the aria refers to heaven, thus violating
the decorum of the official atheism. A small thing like this can piercingly
remind you of the horrors that have been visited on countless believers. As
Chesterton wrote eighty years ago: "Earnest freethinkers need not worry
themselves about the persecutions of the past. Before the lieberal idea is dead
or triumphant we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world has
never seen." Only those possessed by the liberal idea have failed to notice.
In America religious people refer to organized irreligion as "secular
humanism." The irreligionists scoff at this name, as if it were some gauche
backwoods coinage; they forget that they used to use it themselves, as a
euphemism for a militant unbelief that pretended its sole purpose was to
separate (or segregate) religion from public life on constitutional grounds.
Nobody is really deceived any more: the driving motive is hostility to
Christianity. Anthony Lewis, the New York Times columnist who welcomed the
Communist victory in Cambodia in 1975 as representing a "vision of a new
society," was much less sanguine about the Religious Right during the 1980
presidential campaign: he saw the political activities and pronouncements of
conservative Christians as "unconstitutional" and, yes, "dangerous." He had seen
no violation of the Constitution in all the activism of left-wing clergymen over
the years; and thereby hangs a tale.
If the American Left doesn't contemplate persecution of Christians, it has
found its own alternative: seduction of the clergy. Why make martyrs of people
who can be enlisted as allies? And the strange fact is that many of the clergy
have accepted this role.
The liberal clergy see no tension between the sacred and the trendy; they
virtually identify the two, hailing their own leftist protest as "prophetic"--as
if they were defying contemporary currents of power, rather than being swept up
in them. They are embarrassed by dogma; they adapt their theology to politics.
It is tempting to imagine them carrying loose-leaf Bibles, from which
embarrassing passages about sodomy, fornication, and the subordination of women
can be yanked out and replaced by the gospel of gay rights and feminism. Their
fluidity offers anything but the kind of permanent truth against which the
fashions of the day can be measured; their beliefs, such as they are, derive
entirely from secular fashion. They fluctuate between claiming to return to pure
and primitive Christianity and dismissing inconvenient parts of Scripture as
"culturally conditioned." For them, early Christianity dovetails nicely with the
current radical agenda; and nothing is more plainly "culturally conditioned"
than the trendy clergy themselves. They "speak out" against the targets of the
LEft--the "arms race," South Africa, Chile--but are careful not to speak out
against the Left's persecution of their fellow Christians. They speak hopefully
of "Christian-Marxist dialogue"--a diabolical fatuity best appreciated by
imagining a "Christian-Nazi dialogue." Some Christians were afraid to speak out
against Nazism; but at least there was no attempt to find in the Nazi program a
fulfillment of Christian social ethics.
Incredibly, even the Catholic hierarcy is beginning to play this game,
echoing the secular progressive agenda instead of offering resistant to it. In
its denunciations of poverty and prescriptions of collectivism, it forgets that
even altruistic materialism remains materialism, and that its primary mission is
to promote the saving of souls. There is a core of timidity in all this
"speaking out," a spirit of abdication in all this activism. The doctrine of the
"seamless garment"--which holds that if one opposes abortion one must also
oppose nuclear war--has ingratiated the hierarcy with the Left, but it hasn't
converted the Left. On the contrary: the Left continues to favor abortion, and
the doctrine has been interpreted on all sides (correctly) as a rebuke to the
Right. The bishops have weakened their authority by annexing it to "progressive"
causes rather than risking embarrassment by continuing to oppose, in any
effective way, Communism, pornography, and contraception. It can be exalting to
belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely
indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five
minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.
C.S. Lewis says sensibly that Christian politics must come from laymen who
are experienced in politics rather than from the clergy, who aren't, "just as
Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists--not from the
bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their
spare time." And Burke, deploring the spectacle of "political theologians, and
theological politicians," comments that politics and the pulpit are terms that
have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing
voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government
gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit
their proper character, to assume what does not belong to them, are, for the
greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave, and of the character
they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of
meddling and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so
much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite.
Surely the church is a place where one day's truce ought to be allowed to the
dissensions and animosities of mankind.
Which is in no way to deny the real relevance of religion to
politics--provided that religion keeps its "proper character," not as preceptor
of daily policy, but as custodian of an eternal vision of God and man, from
which practical policy can take its bearings. "Mankind more frequently require
to be remined than informed," says Samuel Johnson. One gets the uneasy feeling
that the clergy are trying to inform us when they ought to be reminding us, or
that they want to posture as bold rebels a la mode. Perhaps they need reminding
Let Chesterton have the last word: "We often read nowadays of the valor or
audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated
superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or
antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one's grandmother. The
really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and
supertitions fresh as the first flowers."
COMMUNISM IS our enemy, because it is the enemy of everything that obstructs
its limitless ambition. Soviet strategic literature routinely refers to the
United States as "the main enemy." The official anthem of the Communist regime
in Nicaragua calls the United States "the enemy of mankind." The
anti-Americanism of the worldwide Left, even when it is not overtly Communist,
is its most characteristic feature.
All this should be so obvious as to guide our foreign policy. And yet
liberalism has kept us confused and demoralized in the face of this global
enmity. It attacks not Communism, but "superpatriotism," "the arms race," and
The issue is not superpatriotism. Even conservatives agree that there are
many things wrong with America. The real problem is that the things that are
wrong with it are in many cases the things liberalism thinks are right with it.
Communism and liberalism are variant forms of socialism, with this
difference: the Communists are unsentimental socialists, whereas the liberals
are sentimental socialists. Liberals think the socialist principle can be
combined with the civil principle; Communists realize that they are incompatible
principles, warring principles, to be numbered among "the contradictions of
capitalism" that may be exploited to hasten the destruction of the West. The
Communists see talk of "democratic socialism" as "bourgeois sentimentalism."
To say that liberalism is socialism sounds like an accusation, but it is
merely an identification that has been recognized by the Left itself. Michael
Harrington has wondered why the Democratic Party, whose major elements are
socialist, doesn't simply declare itself openly as a socialist party. The
Communists have always counted on the assistance of communistic elements that
are not formally Communist.
The word "communistic" may sound Birchite now, but it was used by Marx
himself. It it only natural to use adjectives based on nouns to indicate
affinity with those things the nouns stand for, as during the Thirties there
were fascistic tendencies outside the official Fascist Party. Lenin spoke of
"useful idiots." Stalin enlisted socialists and liberals in the Popular Front.
Communists today use as resources abroad the "progressive forces" outside the
various Communist parties. Liberals still march beside Communists in various
"broad coalitions" for "peace," "civil rights," disarmament, and other causes.
In the giant anti-nuclear demonstration in New York in June 1982, the liberal
press spoke of a "rainbow spectrum" of demonstrators, and the event's organizers
said the participants "cut across all ideologies"--but practically everyone
present was of the Left, hard or soft. Tom Wolfe and I were there, looking
vainly for conservatives, libertarians, Ku Klux Klansmen, fundamentalists, or
anyone else of the "Right." Instead, we found only liberals, Communists,
Communist-front groups, Trotskyists, feminists, gay-rights activists, and the
like. Since, according to the organizers, nuclear disarmament is a universal
interest, transcending all political philosophies, it shouldn't have been a
particularly leftist event. Even neo-Nazis should oppose nuclear war; even
Klansmen should be averse to annihilation. But of course it was tacitly
understood on all sides that this was a leftist event, and nobody opposed in
principle to any sort of socialist order saw any point in joining the march.
Liberals never acknowledge the affinity between themselves and the Communists
that the Communists acknowledge. In fact, they never acknowledge that the
Communists acknowledge it. They treat it instead as an exclusively "right-wing"
The West needs not only weapons against Communisn, but clarity about
Communism. And it is clarity that liberalism prevents. Liberals don't want an
arms race: they say we must fight ideas with ideas. But when a conservative
President uses even hard words about the Soviets, words that do no more than
take Lenin at his word, he is guilty of "cold-war rhetoric," "stridency,"
"bellicosity," and "provocation." His words themselves are taken as acts of
aggression. Official Soviet vituperation against the West, meanwhile, is
dismissed as harmless rhetoric. What liberalism really opposes is precisely
clarification in our minds about the principles at stake between East and West.
Such clarification would help the West.
Liberals have long since given up trying to idealize the Soviet system; their
current preferred tactic is to speak of it as a "reality" we must learn to live
with. But they are averse to realism about this reality. Even to speak
realistically of the Soviet Union is to "provoke" the Soviets. Refugees from
countries ruled by right-wing regimes--Chile, South Africa, Nazi Germany--are
recognized by liberals as authoritative witnesses; but refugees from Communism
are dismissed as imbalanced and embittered, actually disqualified as witnesses
by their very experience. Even Solzhenitsyn gets only a grudging hearing from
No liberal would speak of "victims of Communism." The armed borders, the
persecution of religion, and the total annihilation of property rights are not
among the topics of liberal protest. Liberals don't seek economic sanctions
against the Soviet Union; in fact they favor East-West trade, which incidentally
is attractive to Western investors for an ironic reason: since wages in the
Communist world are set by the state, not by the market, Communism offers the
capitalist the very thing Communism was supposed to abolish--cheap labor,
costing less than its real value, the workers having no recourse but to take
what they are offered. (When non-socialists impose such conditions, it is called
"exploitation." When done under socialist auspices, it seems acceptable to
All this is not to suggest that liberals like the Soviet system. Their
attitude toward it is peculiar. They see it as a sort of death-god, a Moloch,
that must be constantly appeased and propitiated, never angered. Moloch is
beyond morality. He is a "reality," which it is not our place to censure. That
only makes him mad. And a good roar from Moloch sends liberals scurrying,
indignant not at him, of course, but at whoever "provoked" him. Death, for
thoroughly secularized people, is the final reality--not heaven, not even
honor--and a power that can inflict death on a huge scale becomes a sort of
ultimate from which it is prudent and even imperative to take one's orientation.
If the Soviet Union no longer offers paradise, at least it can threaten us with
This probably accounts for liberal deference to the Soviet Union, along with
many of liberalism's rhetorical tactics. In some ways the liberal wants to
equate the U.S. with the USSR: Soviet rulers are called "leaders," rather than
"dictators" or "strongmen"--the opprobrious terms applied to despots of the
Right. Standard phrases like "the arms race" and "the two superpowers" imply
moral symmetry between the two countries. On the other hand, liberals discourage
defense and security methods that would make us as "bad" as (read: as effective
as) the Soviets--even though liberal rhetoric generally implies that we are no
better in the first place. There is only one principle of consistency here: the
tactic being used at a given moment is the one best suited to Soviet interests
at that moment.
If liberals don't speak of victims of Communism, they speak of Communists
themselves as victims. Domestically, of course, there are the "victims of
McCarthyism." (We should note that those who most loudly insist on Alger Hiss's
innocence are those who would be least offended by his guilt. That is probably
what they mean by innocence.) The Soviet Union itself is also seen as a victim.
It lost, allegely, twenty million people in World War II, which made it afraid
of war. (It really did lose more than that number under Stalin, but this hasn't
made it afraid of Communism.) It feels "encircled by hostile forces." (It is
always hostile to adjacent countries outside its control.) It is frightened by
Reagan's bellicosity. It saw its invasion of Afghanistan as "essentially
defensive." The United States sent troops into Vladivostok in 1918. And so
The political liberal's tendency to "blame America first" has its counterpart
in religion. The liberal (i.e., disaffected) Catholic blames his own church for
maintaining uncompromised differences with the contemporary world; when the
world and the Church come into conflict, he not only deplores the
incompatibility but censoriously ascribes it to the intransigence of those who
insist on retaining the core doctrines that give Catholicism its identity. As
James Hitchcock shrewdly remarks, such Catholics see themselves not as the
Church's missionaries to the world but as the world's missionaries to the
Church; it is the Church that stands in need of conversion. In the same way,
political liberals see "hard-liners" within America as theobstacles to global
peace. They recognize no core of American principle as sacred, as beyond the
possibility of being sacrificed to international socialism.
Although liberals call the Soviets "paranoid," they don't mean this as a
criticism. It is merely a condition, eminently understandable, and it behooves
the United States to act with "restraint" and avoid "overraction" to the latest
Soviet invasion. Liberals give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt on every
question: the attempt to kill the Pope, yellow rain, arms-control violations,
the shooting down of a civilian airliner. These are issues of fact, and it is
easy to try to disguise an evaluation as an empirical judgment: conservatives
may be too ready to convict the Soviets in every instance. But liberals are too
ready to exonerate them. Again, the debate about whether Alger Hiss was a
Communist was really a debate about the merits of Communism.
It has become a cliche of liberalism that the Soviets "no longer believe in
their ideology." This is rather like saying that the later Borgias had lost
their innocent faith in Machiavelli. True, Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't lie awake
nights wondering whether the Marxian labor theory of value holds water; the
question pretty obviously doesn't interest him and his colleagues. The point is
that the Leninist techniques of subversion and amassing power work very well.
And the Marxist ideology "works" as a device for demoralizing non-Communist
societies, for enlisting support among them, and for lending an aura of
legitimacy to the Soviet system itself.
Communism has a genius for finding the secret nerve of self-doubt in any
society. It is not reliant exclusively on believing Communists; it owes much of
its success to non-believing non-Communists who accept its critique of their
native societies. Governments are often unjust; men are often greedy and
selfish; religion is often practiced hypocritically; families often fail. If
people can be induced to judge their institutions against utopian (and therefore
irrelevant and destructive) criteria, the process of subversion is well under
Communism depends, in other words, on disaffected and restless men who seek
political solutions to ill-defined problems. As the family was sentimentalized
in the nineteenth century, so the state is sentimentalized in the twentieth.
Despite mountains of evidence--in the form of mountains of corpses of people
slaughtered by states--this prejudice in favor of solving problems by
politicizing them persists. And we are still being warned that the robber-baron
capitalist is the clear and present danger to human happiness.
Whether or not the Soviets still believe in socialism, the liberals do. They
have abandoned the claim that socialism "works," but they still find everything
else morally intolerable; but then the real driving motive of socialism has
never been empirical anyway, despite its scientific pretensions. Liberals still
project socialist "aspirations" onto every oppressed people. If there appears to
be a Soviet interest in some Third World trouble spot, the liberal reflex is
always to deny that it is decisive and to insist that a given band of
Soviet-backed rebels is "indigenous." Of course a leftist insurrection may be
indigenous. The point is that Soviet meddling may tip the balance, in the way
that stuffing a ballot box may decide an election. Liberals object to American
meddling broad, and they have no difficulty imagining that it may succeed in
"destabilizing" a given regime. They impute the fall of Allende in Chile to
covert action by the CIA, not to indigenous discontent. The approving term
"indigenous" is never applied to anti-socialist forces.
To put it another way, liberalism today acts in coy partnership with
Communism; it invokes its procedural freedoms almost exclusively for the purpose
of advancing the Left. The free speech of Communists in free countries is a
liberal passion; the free speech, religious freedom, and right to vote of people
within the Soviet bloc are not even liberal concerns. The double standard has
ceased being a flaw of liberalism and hs become its very essence.
Liberalism has turned into a component of a larger and looser version of the
Popular Front. Outside the United States, and often within, the strategic
targets of Communism are also the targets of liberal indignation: Vietnam,
Chile, Iran, Rhodesia, Nicaragua, South Africa. Liberal moral outrage against
"corrupt and repressive" regimes ceases when Soviet objectives are achieved.
Once a "progressive" regime is installed, it is measured against neither utopian
standards nor even those of common decency: liberals award it the status of a
"reality" and urge us to "normalize relations" with it, which means, for
openers, not saying harsh things about it. Even to criticize it is to "try to
impose our standards" on it. Socialism covers a multitude of sins. The moment a
country goes socialist, it ceases to be a target of withering moral judgment and
enters a state of complete exemption from liberal criticism.
In practice, though this is never openly admitted, liberalism divides the
world into two broad zones: what might be called the "zone of morality" and the
"zone of reality." There is no moral continuity between them, since moralizing
stops at the borders of the latter. The two zones correspond roughly to what
Soviet strategists call the "zone of war" and the "zone of peace." In the zone
of war--the areas outside Soviet hegemony--everything is up for grabs, eligible
for subversion and open aggression. Soviet conquest, dominsation, or alliance
moves a country within the zone of peace, where no challenge to state power is
tolerated. As Leoid Brezhnev put it, "What we have, we keep." And Soviet
territorial claims, as Jean-Francois Revel observes, are the only firmly assured
property rights left in this world. Certainly those claims are never questioned
by liberalism, which excludes those under Communist power from its lengthy list
of "oppressed peoples."
The pattern of liberal behavior is so clear and consistent that it is almost
laughable that liberals should resent the accusation of Communist sympathies. As
I said earlier, they have been making in practice a distinction they vehemently
deny in principle--the distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian"
regimes--for many years. Since the fall of Hitler, they have regularly attacked
the authoritarian and supported or excused the totalitarian. Even while Hitler
lived, George Orwell noticed that the leftist intellectuals "want to be
anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian." Of course it is a foolish mistake
to suppose that the liberals are all working for Moscow. But once you grasp that
they are working with Moscow, everything falls into place. They conceive of
themselves, and ideally the entire West, as having a relation of partnership
with the Soviets; hence their frequent use of words like "dialogue" and
"cooperation" and the phrase "areas of common interest." They never looked for
common interests with Hitler; they never speak of setting aside our differences
with South Africa.
Communism is not merely "another form of government." It is the first in
modern history to have the ambition not only to govern society, but to change it
to its roots, even to change the nature of man. This is what we mean by the
clumsy word "totalitarianism." Before that word was in currency, a Western
observer who had lived in Russia for half a century was struck by the novelty of
Communism in this respect. In Russia Today and Yesterday (1930), E. J. Dillon
It never occurred to the most iconoclastic of the French revolutionists to do
away with the conception of the family or of the wide-ranging power of the
father as head of the family, to abolish marriage, to modify the current idea of
property, or the many implications of these principles. The French Revolution
was careful to preserve intact all these institutions, and to strengthen and
spread them, and even to religion itself, which at first was jibed and scoffed
at, certain important functions were allotted in the regenerate state. And all
these symptoms of conservatism in the midst of a tremendous upheaval were
consecrated in Chateaubriand's overrated but highly seasonable book Le Genie du
Bolshevism, on the contrary, is first of all a relentless destroyer of the
roots of past culture, religious, social, pedagogical, and also of those
champions of that culture who remain true to it, refusing to be converted and
live. The Bolshevists created the new woman, endowed with full power over her
body and her mind, and annihilated all the "crimes" against morality which still
figure in our superannuated penal codes, and they turned marriage into an
experiment capable of being renewed whenever the parties feel inclined to try
their luck again, and abolished sexual honor. Between the two movements,
therefore, there is no root likeness. They differ in all essentials.
The sin of liberalism is its refusal to acknowledge that the entire Communist
project is monstrous. When, in 1975, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times wrote
about the victorious Communists forced-marching three million people out of
Phnom Penh, many of whom died along the way, he surmised that the Communists
were acting on a "vision of a new society"--and he meant this not as an
accusation, but as a justification. Even more telling, he avoided using the word
"Communists." Liberalism never holds the historical record of Communism against
a new Communist regime; whereas the very adoption of a swastika would be enough
to earn a new regime condemnation from all sides, the flourishing of
Marxist-Leninist symbols guarantees a new regime a favorable reception from
There is no serious Communist presence in American politics. But there is a
serious communistic presence. The cancer of socialism has metastasized among us.
As liberals say, labels are misleading; and the most misleading label of all is
"liberalism," which is what we have been taught to call the thing that teaches
us to judge everything, including socialism, by socialist standards.
IX. MINORITY RULE
IN JANUARY 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down the most
astonishing ruling in its history: it effectively struck down as
unconstitutional the abortion laws of all fifty states.
This ruling made abortion on demand a fact of life in America, and abortion
clinics sprang up across the nation overnight. An enormous new grass-roots
political movement sprang up in response. The controversy over abortion has been
one of the most heated and bitter in the annals of American politics. After all,
the Court acted in defiance of a deeply rooted part of the Western moral
tradition. Yet liberals expected the nation to acquiesce instantly and condemned
anti-abortion protest as "divisive." The entire pro-life movement, which until
Roe v. Wade had generally prevailed through the normal legislative process, was
accused of trying to "impose its views" on the country; liberals made no such
charge, however, against the majority of the Court, which had committed an
exercise of what Justice Byron White, in his dissent, called "raw judicial
There was a further irony in the Court's ruling. Precisely because the
substantive issue of abortion aroused great moral passion, the procedural oddity
of the decision attracted little notice. The Court had struck down the laws of
all fifty states--not only the most restrictive, but even the most permissive.
This was far more sweeping than its famous ruling in Brown v. Board of
Education, which affected the laws of only a dozen states, and had far more
popular moral sentiment on its side.
In Roe, as opposed to Brown, the Court virtually held that every state
legislature in the nation had acted in violation of the Constitution. This had a
remarkable implication: it meant that none of the states had understood the
original agreement among themselves. All had been acting inconsistently with the
federal social contract without knowing it until, of course, the U.S. Supreme
Court set them straight.
But that was not all. The Court's own constitutional qualms about legal
restrictions on abortion were themselves a novelty. One would think there might
have been earlier qualms--at the time the abortion laws were first passed in the
nineteenth century, in legislative debates along the way, in scholarly articles
in the law journals, in earlier lower-court rulings. But apparently there were
none, ever. The abortion issue had been debated on its substantive merits, but
never in terms of constitutionality.
So Roe in effect held not only that popular and legislative majorities had
always been wrong, but that no minority had ever been right. That was the
measure of the Court's arrogance. "Discovering," in its anfractuous way, a
"right of privacy," which itself is nowhere explicit in the Constitution, the
Court found the "right" to abortion in the "penumbra" of this phantom--and swept
away a whole century of diverse legislation whose common denominator was a
minimal regard for the personhood of unborn human beings.
If the subject had been less inflammatory than abortion--if, say, the Court
had struck down the traffic laws of all fifty states--our primary attention
would have been given to the formal absurdity of the Court's claim to have
discerned the true meaning of the Constitution for the first time. Roe marked
the pinnacle of the Court's assumption not so much of unique expertise as of
It might be supposed that the Constitution was singularly opaque, if its
meaning could elude so many generations of citizens, legislators, scholars, and
judges. And it might be wondered how the Court was able so suddenly to achieve
true insight into that deeply hidden meaning. But although the Court's reasoning
seemed dubious even to some liberal scholars who themselves favored legal
abortion as a matter of public policy, the ruling stood. For like so many of the
Court's flashes of constitutional vision, Roe happily coincided with the current
liberal agenda, which mandated abortion on demand.
For a generation the Court implemented the liberal agenda on social policy in
the name of preserving (or somehow "expanding") constitutional rights. It struck
down legislation or simply dictated policy in the areas of public-school prayer,
aid to private schools, racial segregation, police arrest procedures,
legislative districting, pornography, birth control, and abortion. Apart from
Roe, the Burger Court has generally avoided radical innovations, but it has
generally conserved the radical innovations of its predecessors, qualifying some
of them without contradicting any of them. This practice has only increased the
public's confusion about the Cour's role, but it has been purposeful: a Court
that accused its predecessors of simple error would damage its own institutional
authority, just as a pope who repealed a dogma defined by the previous pope
would damage the authority of the papacy. From the Court's point of view, it is
better strategy to pretend that the Court has maintained an overall consistency
than to acknowledge that (to take the obvious example) the Warren Court
bequeathed the nation as a substantial body of bogus constitutional law.
What has made this mess possible? One factor is that the liberal community,
so powerful in the academy and mass communications, has run interference for the
Court as long as the Court has promoted the liberal agenda--especially those
parts of the agenda that would have a hard time getting through the legislative
process. Liberals in other branches of government have been happy to have the
Court performing this service, thus sparing them the risks of advocating legal
pornography and abortion before the voters. It is much easier for them to shrug
that the "interpretation" of the Constitution is the Court's prerogative under
the Constitution itself, and to tell angry constituents that it would be
improper for the legislative branch to interfere with the independence of the
In addition, Americans have become sadly ignorant of their own constitution
and abjectly deferential to the supposed expertise of the Court. They have
accepted the judicial mystique and the crippling ground rules it imposes on
them. Most of them are totally unaware that the Constitution was intended as a
social contract to which any citizen might appeal, that their own ancestors
regularly adverted to it in legislative debate, and that it is only recently
that it has been supposed that the interpretation of the Constitution was the
special preserve of the judicial branch of government.
But thanks to the judicial mystique, American self-government has been
seriously eroded. Major changes in our way of life (the omnipresence of
pornography is testimony enough) can now be imposed by a body of nine unelected
officials, answerable to nobody. Not only is the Court spared the necessity of
facing either the voters or a reappointment proceeding: its members are nearly
unremovable. The so-called "checks and balances" hardly inhibit it at all, since
few citizens, even among conservatives, have the stomach for impeachment
proceedings against an individual Justice, let alone against a majority of the
Court. There are no day-to-day mechanisms for correcting the Court's errors,
real or perceived, corresponding to the veto or the votes to override that
enable the executive and legislative branches to control each other's individual
acts. Far from having "separate and equal" status with the other two branches,
the Court enjoys a kind of superiority, even supremacy.
Congress, it is true, can limit the Court's appellate jurisdiction, but this
too is an emergency measure it is properly reluctant to invoke. Besides, as I
already said, the Court's course has served interests shared, openly or
furtively, by many congressmen and senators: by a gentleman's agreement, the
Court has done the dirty work of the liberal agenda.
The Framers of the Constitution envisioned a far more modest role for the
Court. In the Federalist, Publius assures us that the judiciary will be "the
least dangerousc of the three branches of the Federal Government, since it is to
have "neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment." But times have changed.
Thanks to the principle of stare decisis (the authority of judicial precedent),
Supreme Court rulings can be undone only by the equally unlikely means of
self-reversal or constitutional amendment. A ruling therefore has nearly the
force of a constitutional amendment, since lower courts are obliged to follow
it. It is still sometimes objected that stare decisis, a sound principle of
common law, is inappropriate to constitutional law, as Publius would probably
agree, since it gives a ruling the character of will and makes the Court's
reasoning ("judgment) secondary or irrelevant. It identifies the Supreme Court's
interpretation of the Constitution with the constitution itself, and obliges
lower courts to defer to the High Court's interpretation rather than do their
own reasoning. Stare decisis, in short, gives the Supreme Court something more
than "judgment," and also deprives other parts of the judiciary of the same
judgment that Publius tells us belongs to them too.
Publius even implies that the executive branch is within its rights to refuse
to enforce a dubious ruling by the Court. In soothing apprehensions of judicial
power, he points out that the judiciary not only lacks real power itself but
"must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy
of its judgments." He could hardly have meant that the executive arm would be
acting improperly if it refused, as Andrew Jackson later did, to implement a
Supreme Court decision.
Something else has happened to enlarge the Court's power, which Publius could
not have foreseen. Since 1925, the Court has used a dubious interpretation of
the Fourteenth Amendment in "incorporate" the Bill of Rights into state
constitutions. In a progressive and piecemeal way, it has held that the states
are bound as much as Congress to observe the separation of church and state
(though this is not a personal right), the free exercise of religion, the
freedom of speech and of the press, the privilege against self-incrimination,
and so forth. (It is an interesting anomaly--and a tip-off to the ideological
motivation of the "incorporation" process--that the Court has not required the
states to respect the right to keep and bear arms.)
By means of the incorporation doctrine, the Court has assumed a wide power to
strike down state and local legislation. And in fact it strikes down state and
local laws about a hundred times as often as federal legislation. (This is
another tip-off: the states, unlike Congress, have no ready means of striking
back at the Court even if they want to.)
And so the Supreme Court, conceived originally as a check on federal
expansion, has turned judicial review into an instrument of federal expansion.
Since the New Deal especially, the Court has materially assisted the
centralization of power and the weakening of the original federal system.
Publius would be aghast.
Furthermore, though the fact is seldom noticed, the Court's recent career is
even more remarkable for the federal legislation it has let pass than for the
state and local laws it has struck down. The clear implication of Article I,
Section 8, in conjunction with the Tenth Amendment, is that Congress is
essentially limited to the powers explicitly conferred on it in the
Constitution--or why enumerate them? The meaning of the Tenth Amendment has been
debated endlessly (and there is some room for latitude on the question whether
Congress can be strictly limited to its explicit powers), but it is unreasonable
to suppose that Congress was to be able to assume new powers at its pleasure.
Publius, after all, points out that the powers of Congress are "few and
defined," while the powers remaining to the states are "numerous and
indefinite." Yet the selective inaction of the "activist" Court has made the
Tenth Amendment nearly a dead letter. Congress now legislates about anything it
is in the mood to legislate about.
This means that the original federal system is now in ruins. The Tenth
Amendment was more than an afterthought; in fact it is logically prior to the
first eight amendments. (Willmoore Kendall described the First Amendment as
nothing more than the Tenth Amendment as applied specifically to the areas of
religion and speech.)
It is worth recalling Publius's apprehensions about the Bill of Rights. He
argued that a bill of rights might be necessary under a monarchy or despotic
form of government, in which the powers of the state were general and unlimited,
and freedom could only be achieved by specifying a few exceptions to this power.
But under a free government, which had only such powers as were explicitly
conferred on it by the people, freedom was the rule and those powers were the
exception. If the government had no authority to regulate the press, he argued,
it was superfluous to stipulate that the government must respect the freedom of
the press: "For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no
power to do?" Such rights would confuse people about the basic presumption that
the government did not have a general and unlimited power, by implying that it
Such objections were taken seriously, and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were
framed to meet them. As Kendall says, the Tenth contains in miniature the whole
theory of the Constitution. Its desuetude is a constitutional calamity. The
Federal Government now has a general and unlimited power, to which the Bill of
Rights offers only a handful of exceptions. Under the original plan, the
creation of a socialist regime in Washington would have been impossible; now it
can be voted, or smuggled, into existence.
Most Americans have only a vague knowledge of the Constitution, and they tend
to identify it with a few provisions in the Bill of Rights as construed by
liberal Justices and publicists. The liberal interpretation is so thoroughly
established that even a Justice as conservative as William Rehnquist can't
challenge it except in a few details. No reform is possible without a virtual
renaissance of constitutional understanding. To put the problem in a few words,
the Constitution is now widely identified with its corruptions.
But all is not lost. Scholarship has made inroads against the liberal
misconstructions, and even some liberal scholars, including Leonard Levy and
Raoul Berger, have helped recover the intentions of the Framers. Levy has found
that the Framers conceived the freedom of speech far more narrowly than Justices
Black and Douglas did; Robert Cord has found the liberal Court's understanding
of religious establishment equally unhistorical. Berger has shown beyond any
serious question that the liberal Court has played fast and loose with the
Fourteenth Amendment. And in general the realization is spreading that the
liberal interpretation of the constitution has been profoundly anachronistic.
Even so, there are still those who insist, when all else fails, that the
intentions of the Framers are irrelevant. Levy himself attacked Berger's book on
the Fourteenth Amendment, accusing Berger of desiring to be ruled by "the dead
hand of the past." The usual ploy is to say that the Constitution, that
marvelous thing, is "a living document."
The purpose of such evasions is to license the judiciary to exercise its
will, rather than the "judgment" contemplated by the Framers. It is essential to
the rule of law that law be predictable. But it is equally essential to the
liberal agenda that the Justices be free to rule capriciously, to "expand" our
rights, to "broaden" our protections, to "discover" new implications in the
"penumbra" of our established liberties. The judiciary's great achievement in
our time has been to turn the great and permanent charter of American government
into an instrument of utterly unpredictable inventions. Justice William O.
Douglas even confessed that he would rather create a precedent than find one; he
said that his opinions were guided by his "gut." Given all this, it is not too
surprising that nobody knows what our supposedly "fundamental" law is going to
And yet we are constantly being congratulated (by liberalism, of course) on
our gains under the new regime, which is both wonderfully liberated from the
dead hand of the past and yet somehow endowed with the spirit of the Framers.
Most Americans, including highly educated ones, don't appreciate the federal
system well enough to appreciate the real loss involved in this supposed gain.
They fail to see the way the federal structure supports liberty and therefore
fail to see the loss of liberty entailed in the dissolution of that structure
and in the federal arrogation of nearly total power.
This has important practical consequences. The level of federal spending, our
oppressive tax rates, and our constant budget crises all flow from the removal
of effective limits on federal power. Most of the money spent by the Federal
Government is appropriated for purposes ("social programs," as they are
called--a phrase incongruous with the language of the Framers) that have no
positive authorization in Article I of the Constitution. Publius would say that
Congress is constantly acting ultra uires. Having forsaken constitutional
limitations on congressional power, we are forced to fight difficult battles
against its greed and profligacy, most of which we are doomed to lose. Our
"budget crises" are really on an aspect of a protracted constitutional crisis.
What is worse than popular ignorance of the Constitution itself is the simple
surrender of common sense. If people remembered what they were taught in school,
they would realize that the Constitution is an instrument of popular
self-government, and not the proper possession of technicians, specialists, and
mystagogues. They would know, for instance, that the freedom of speech was never
supposed to include hard-core pornography and topless dancing. But we are so
used to deferring to accredited experts in every walk of life that it is only
natural, in a baneful way, that we should entrust our self-government to someone
In the most famous number of the Federalist--No. 10--Publius considers the
commonest fault of popular government: its propensity to "the violence of
faction," or what we would call special-interest politics. Some have managed to
read this paper as an actual celebration of special-interest politics, though
Publius calls it "this dangerous vice." His ideal is the "englightened
statesman" who is actuated by "patriotism" and devotion to "the public good."
But he knows human nature too well to rely exclusively on "moral [and] religious
He therefore argues that the constitutional plan is designed to filter out
the influence of special interests in various ways, so that the system will
tend, in its legislation, to express "the deliberate sense" of the nation,
rather than the "passions" and "interets" of factions. The design is a subtle
one: though it allows for majority rule, it is also so constructed as to produce
rule by a certain kind of majority, as Kendall keenly puts it. This is a
large-minded majority, a public-spirited majority, a body united not by narow
interests but by loftier considerations. Far from trying to construct a sort of
legislative contraption that will automatically produce good results by letting
one faction cancel out another, Publius things that the Philadelphia plan, which
"presupposes" certain estimable "qualities in human nature," will tend to elicit
patriotic rather than factional motives in citizens.
It is from this point of view that we should regard the passages on judicial
review in No. 78. Publius there denies that judical review implies "a
superiority of the judicial to the legislative power." It means, rather, that
"the power of the people is superior to both." But "the people" in this case is
the people who have framed their Constitution as their fundamental law. This
people, we might say, is an abiding majority, a permanent majoirity, whose
constitutional consensus is superior to any momentary act of a current majority
in the legislature. And so, when a court finds that a legislative act is
inconsistent with the greater law that "We, the People," have ordained, the
court, in striking down that act, is not expressing its own will, but deciding
in favor of the abiding majority against the current majority. In this sense,
judicial review is one more safeguard against "faction."
Unfortunately, the two-party system is to a great extent the triump of
faction over the Philadelphia plan. Because the Supreme Court since Roosevelt
has been largely a complaisant accomplice of special-interest politics, we are
burdened with a huge body of laws and concomitant taxes that embody "the
violence of faction."
The Court itself has been motivated by a factional passion: liberalism. But
by ascribing liberal ideology to the Constitution itself, the Court has escaped
due censure for promoting its own narrow interests. The Court's traditional
role, combined with the recent Court's hypocritical rhetoric, has sustained the
fiction that this Court, in striking down old laws regarding (for instance)
pornography and abortion, is opposing a current majority on behalf of the
abiding majority. But this is the reverse of the truth: the Court has been
representing not the abiding majority, but a current minority, the liberal
Liberalism has succeeded in perverting the judiciary in order to impose its
will on the majority. Since many parts of its agenda could never have mustered a
majority in their favor, it has adopted the insidious strategy of identifying
its agenda with "constitutional values." As the record shows, this strategy at
least deserves high marks for cunning.
But nobody should be fooled. The Court "discovered" these values in the
Constitution at just the same time the organs of liberal propaganda were pushing
them, and those Justices who dominated the Court at the peak of its
liberalism--William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, William Brennan, Thurgood
Marshall--were also, in their personal lives, passionate advocates of liberal
causes. They were promoting their own policy preferences when they pretended to
be reading the Constitution, and they got away with it. Their bad history and
bad logic have been copiously exposed; their bad legacy remains in the body of
constitutional law, and we are left to cope with it as we may.
If we set aside the merits of the abortion issue itself, Roe v. Wade stands
as an especially clear case of the Court's imposing a novel minority agenda, a
liberal fad, under the pretense of pursuing the intimations of the Constitution
itself. I repeat: constitutional objections were practically never hear in
America until the advocates of legal abortion decided on the strategy of
smuggling their cause into law via the judiciary. Then the Court obligingly
"discovered" in the Constitution what had never before been suspected of
residing there: a right to abort. In order to do this, The Court had to pretend
that every legislature that had ever considered the issue had misunderstood the
Constitution, and it had to be able to count on widespread pasivity before its
usurpations of power. It was able to do both.
By such devices the Court performs an innovative role while it affects to
perform a conservative one. It enlists our reverence for the Constitution in
order to make us indiscriminately deferential to the Constitution's current
interpreters. In a final inversion of the original constitutional plan, the
modern Court has FORCE and WILL, but not judgment. The perversion of the
judicial branch marks a pretty complete triumph of factional politics over the
kind of republican government envisioned by the generation of Washington,
Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison.
SOLZHENITSYN tells us that the zeks of the Gulag came to love the place of
their confinement; some long-term prisoners prefer staying in prison to resuming
their old freedom. Affection can take root anywhere.
And this is natural. Most people are not disposed to rebel against thier
circumstances. They tend to accept as legitimate whatever they are used to. The
signers of the Declaration of Independence adopted an apologetic attitude not
toward George III, but toward "mankind," whose "decent opinion" they respected
and owend an explanation for a radical act; thereby showing that they were not,
at bottom, radicals in the current sense.
People are naturally conservative--not in holding certain definite doctrines,
but in realizing that the things they intend to do with their lives depend on
continuity and predictability. Overt political conservatism may or may not
emerge from this realization. On the other hand, temperamental conservatism may
incline them to hold unreflectively to the status quo, even if, in the long rum,
the currently prevailing political forces are destructive of the permanent
conditions of social health.
What I call the Alienist regime therefor enjoys the support of some
conservative instincts, and the conservative, "alienated" in his own way from
this regime, has to do his own kind of "consciousness-raising," unmasking and
exposing the status quo. His task is to show the "natural" conservative the
necessity for a dose of radicalism, in the short term, for the sake of ultimate
preservation of a way of life.
He has to convince his instinctively conservative friend of several things.
That property rights are not a vehicle of greed, but an impediment to greed, a
greed seldom recognized as greed: the greed of the limitless state. That the
family is menaced by evils that are proffered in the guises of assistance and
freedom. That religion is not really free when it is confined to a shrinking
residue of private activity. That the nation is threatened both internally and
externally by the socialist principle of a totally politicized social order.
That a whole way of life is being undermined by people who should be its
guardians, such as the majority of the Supreme Court.
One of the difficulties the conscious conservative faces is that all of us
have become habituated to the Alienist perspective. When we talk about school
prayer, abortion, capital punishment, or poverty, we make the rule by the
exception. The old maxim has it that hard cases make bad law; but we make so
much of our law by focusing exclusively on the hard case. What about the child
who doesn't want to pray? The girl pregnant by her own father? the innocent man
convicted of a capital crime? the man who simply can't find a decent job?
These considerations are neither outlandish nor illegitimate. They deserve to
be taken into account. But only after we have decided the primary
considerations: whether public-school prayer is essentially a good thing,
whether abortion is right or wrong, whether capital punishment is justified,
whether it is right to deprive some people of their earnings for the benefit of
others. The rule of law must not be distorted in such a way as to undermine the
normal energies that keep society, in all its complexity, working healthily.
Not long ago the conservative perspective could be plausibly dismissed as
"extreme." It has turned out to be prophetic. The average American increasingly
sees that the Alienist impulse, as expressed in the liberal agenda, has been
destructive and sometimes disastrous. Government based on "social consciousness"
has turned out to be the enemy not only of individual freedom but also of
socially cohesive institutions, especially the home and the church. Despite its
slogans of "cooperation, not competition," the liberal regime has fostered
bitter political conflict over the wealth it has put up for grabs--while
discouraging the production of wealth.
"To make us love our country," says Burke, "our country ought to be lovely."
Our country is still lovely in myriad ways, from its natural splendors to the
spontaneous good manners of its citizens in their little daily transactions. But
its ugliers features--violence and crassness--have been worsened by a generation
of misconceived social policies and bogus civil liberties. Liberalism's promise
of a "Great Society" has not been kept; it has become a sour joke.
america is unique, but we should not make too much of its uniqueness. In the
long run we love our country for the same reasons any man loves his country--not
for things that can be bragged about, but for things that can hardly be
communicated, and are understood by outsiders mostly by analogy with their own
patriotic affections. You communicate your love for your mother not by
expatiating on your mother's singular virtues, still less by calling her the
Great Mother, but simply by using the word "mother." Every man born of woman
will understand. Well, almost every man. There is always the occasional misfit
who is alienated from his mother, or who thins that motherhood is outmoded. But
it is wisest to direct the conversation to the others.
COPYRIGHT 1985 National Review, Inc.