Tim Dunkin: How We Got to Where We Are

In the previous installments of this series, we saw that America's turn from the Common Sense philosophy of our forefathers to the anti-rational, emotional philosophy of Romanticism gave rise to numerous ills which continue to afflict our nation today. The decline of the sense of right and wrong, that there is objective morality that accords with reason and truth, put America onto the path of “choose your own adventure morality” in which every man does that which is right in his own eyes. This has helped both to corrupt out people and our political system. As a result, we not only see rampant immorality in the way our government operates, but we see a political class and a political system which seem to have taken leave of sense entirely. The Decline of Public-Spiritedness

Another outflowing of the Romantic spirit in America that went hand-in-hand with what we have talked about previously is the decline of public-spiritedness. Public-spiritedness may be defined as, “the quality of having or showing an unselfish interest in the public welfare.” In the early American Republic, and in fact, in all republics and other systems where power is held closely to the people, public-spiritedness is a vitally important quality that ought to be broadly and deeply inculcated in the citizenry. This quality is what motivates private citizens to come together for mutually beneficial public action, and it is a natural corollary to Lockean commonwealthian ideology, which essentially posits that societies and governments are formed by individuals who come together for mutual good and protection. Public-spiritedness is the necessary interface for citizens of a republic when they are crossing the boundary between the res privata (private things) and the res publica (public things). It allows citizens to keep their individual and personal lives free of arbitrary and excessive government interference, while yet maintaining social integrity through private associations as well as through government which stays within the proper restraints and makes only proper demands upon its citizens. One result of this is that the individual citizen, though an individual, is responsible for his behavior towards other members of the commonwealth.

So how does this relate to the rise of Romanticism that I've discussed previously? As noted before, Romanticism dealt with the individual in a way that was alien to the way that this concept was understood in America during her early years. For the first century or so of American history, the American citizen was an individual, but a public-spirited one. He looked after his own interests, but also had a healthy concern for the good of his community and nation. The Romantic spirit, however, painted the individual in a new light, one in which the individual is all that matters. Because the individual can define his or her own subjective morality, the individual is responsible to nobody else and cannot be constrained by anyone else. Lost was the sense that bad or selfish behavior on the part of one person was a detriment to the community as a whole. Hence, Romanticism served to pervert the American spirit of rational, public-spirited individualism into an excessive, selfish individualism such as we see in our nation today.

Now, that last statement probably sounds like heresy to many conservatives who have been taught to believe that you're either a “rugged individual” who “don't need nothin' from nobody”, or else you're a Commie. However, we need to understand that this is a false dichotomy. It is quite possible to both be an individual who bears the responsibility for his own livelihood, family, and manner of living, while yet being public-spirited enough to devote some of his energies and time to the maintenance of social order and the common good. Indeed, this is what the individualism found in true classical liberalism was all about. And the reasoned individualism of classical liberalism is not the same as the selfish, “me only” individualism which infects the thinking of many Americans today.

This error in thinking about the individual was exemplified and magnified by Ayn Rand’s atheistic philosophy of Objectivism. Objectivism essentially posits that the only morality that exists is the individual's own pursuit of his own happiness and advancement, and implicitly rejects any altruistic concepts that would suggest a responsibility on the part of one individual toward another, or towards the society in which the individual lives. Rand wrote,

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, “About the Author”, pp. 1170-1171)

The problem with this thesis is that it is self-contradictory. Reason cannot be an absolute if you reject the outside source of morality as it is found in biblical morality. If your own happiness is the moral purpose of life, then your own reason becomes the arbiter of that absolute, but one person’s reason may (or perhaps necessarily will) conflict with another’s, making neither “absolute.” What if one man's reason tells him that his happiness will only be had by robbing another man of his wallet? Obviously, an impasse is created.

With regard to their anthropology, socialism and modern day libertarianism - with so much of its intellectual foundation in Rand’s Objectivist philosophy - are not that different. From the standpoint of the individuals holding them, both of these rely upon selfish individualism as the basis of their morality. Yes, I said that socialism does too. While we tend to refer to socialism and communism as “collectivist,” and from a governmental perspective they are, we often fail to note the motivating factors that make them so attractive to so many people. People find socialism attractive because it is a way for them to get their piece of the pie without working for it, without expending much effort. That is an individualistic position. It is the position which says that me, getting what I want, even at somebody else’s expense, is the most important thing. It is the epitome of the “me-first” ethos that forms the foundation of Randian Objectivism as much as it does that of Marxism. Essentially, individual recipients of the socialist's “benevolence” choose to do so because laziness and “something for nothing” are what they believe, through their own reasonings, will bring them greater happiness. While there may not be much “productive achievement” in this, it certainly fulfills Rand’s concept that “his own happiness” is “the moral purpose of his life.”

In America, conservatism has somewhat lost its way into the realms of libertarianism, and consequently has lost the sense of public-spiritedness that classical liberalism understood to be a foundation necessity for a free, republican form of government. Despite its claims for itself, libertarianism is not classical liberalism. Instead, it is a Romantic interpretation of classical liberalism – one which takes the liberal concept of individual liberty within the constraints of public stability, and turns it into an anarchical free for all, a “state of nature” the likes of which Locke developed his commonwealthian liberalism so as to counteract. When every man acts on the impulse of his own morality without concern for the rights and liberties of others, chaos and anarchy will result. While I am certainly aware that libertarians would argue that their philosophy precludes allowing one person to trample the rights of another, when you look at many of their beliefs and carry them through to their logical conclusion, you see that the selfish always overrules the thoughtful.

Libertarians have all kinds of strange ideas that seem - to them - to sound good, at least on paper. Yet, if we were to put these into practice, the consequences for liberty would be catastrophic. For instance, take the matter of private roads (which is, incidentally, what soured me on my youthful flirtation with libertarianism). A typical libertarian presentation of this doctrine would begin with the reflexive argument that nothing the government does can ever be good (which, by the way, is not true). This being the case, we should not have public roads, but should instead privatize them. Sounds great, right? Usually at this point, all kinds of economic arguments are brought into the mix, about how private owners would have a greater incentive to maintain them efficiently, you wouldn’t have lazy highway department workers standing around doing nothing, etc. etc.

But then we could raise the question: What if the guy who owns the roads that I live on, or that I need to go to town or go to work or whatever, doesn’t like my politics or my religion or the way I part my hair, and tells me that I can’t “trespass” on “his” road? At this point, the typical libertarian will say that we should submit the question to “private arbitration” (since court systems, as part of government, need to be done away with too). But what if the road’s owner doesn’t agree to private arbitration, or what if I have no guarantee that private arbitration will be impartial, disinterested, and just? What then? My recourse is basically to either starve or else shoot the owner of the road when he tries to keep me from trespassing. In other words, my liberty – my freedom to go about my business as I see fit – is hindered. We’ve returned back to the state of nature where it’s (literally) every man for himself and where the determination of whether I get to enjoy my liberty or not depends on which of us has the better aim. That’s exactly the type of situation that classically liberal philosophers like Locke were trying to take us away from when they developed their commonwealthian understanding of liberty.

Commonwealthian ideas of liberty – which depend on public-spirited and the rejection of extreme ideas of individual – simply say that I should not have to blow my neighbor away to be able to enjoy my own liberty. We need to understand that there are some legitimate functions of government in Lockean theory – and one of these is the arbitrative role. It is perfectly legitimate for government to act as an impartial (ideally) mediator between individual citizens. This is the whole basis, for instance, for contract law. It’s why we can rest assured that if the guy we signed a contract with turns around and rooks us, we can sue him for compensation, we can seek redress without having to assault or kill him. Liberty depends on the rule of law, indeed, it cannot exist without it.

As such, certain laws that are for the public good really are liberty-friendly. As an example, allow me to draw a thought-picture for you. Let us say that I own a piece of property through which a large and useful stream flows. Downstream are the properties of my neighbors. We all use the stream – some for irrigating crops, some for watering cattle, perhaps one uses it to turn a waterwheel to generate electricity. Now, suppose I decide one day that I don't really feel like driving all the way to the recycling center to dump my used motor oil. Instead, I'll take advantage of this nice stream to dump it in. Suddenly, crops downstream start withering, cattle are dying, and the waterwheel is gummed up and won't turn. But hey, it's on my property, so I can do what I want with it, right? No, because in doing so, I rob all my neighbors of their use and enjoyment of their properties. In this type of case, simply sneering at the phrase “for the public good” won't cut it with respect to actually protecting liberty. There actually would be the need for a law to protect the liberty of each individual who comprises “the public” in the enjoyment of what is his. Not every law is bad, nor every action by the individual good. It is when both the law and the individual are in accord with the principle of limiting government to its proper role that liberty can flourish. But that cannot happen until individual citizens accept the responsibility to take up the slack where we don't want the government intruding.

One thing that Ayn Rand would have found horrifying – with her exaltation of the individual über alles – was the emphasis placed upon associationalism and collective action in early America. This was implicit in our nation from the very beginning. Let's get this straight – America was not founded by “rugged individualists.” It was founded by rugged individuals who worked together to build communities within which to raise their families, worship their God as they saw fit, and to prosper as they were individually able. And it was this aggregation of individuals coming together voluntarily for the common good which actually helped America to stave off the march of socialism and collectivism for as long as she did.

America resisted the siren calls of socialism and the welfare state for so long in part because the corrosive effects of Romantic “me onlyism” and systematic immorality were to a certain extent remedied and counteracted by the charitable willingness of Americans to take care of those less well-off through their own kindheartedness. In other words, individuals acting for the common good. For instance, Americans didn’t need many government-run orphanages because we had so many private ones, ran by churches and philanthropic societies. A moral society certainly does not allow certain of its members to starve in the streets and so forth. But a moral society also does not replace the private willingness to help others with a state-mandated compulsion to do so. Therefore, a moral society cannot rest upon the Romantic, Objectivist libertarianism that, in its more extreme forms, views even private charity as suspicious for its altruism.

Nevertheless, America yielded to the call of socialism, and continues to sink in the quicksand. Why? Because we allowed a false ideal of the individual – one which says that me and only me really count for anything – to take hold of our minds. We became willing to bear the smaller burden of paying taxes and spreading the misery around instead of bearing the greater, or at least more acute, burden of individually helping those in our society who genuinely needed some assistance, someone to look out for them.

The Romanticism of the 19th century served as a dual setup. On the one hand, the emphasis on emotionalism strengthened the reasonable empathy for the less fortunate so that it became an identification that demanded action, while on the other hand, the new emphasis on the fulfillment of individual wants and desires left less room than before for the performance of that action through private means, since that would interfere with the satisfaction of those wants and desires. The demand then was that the government would do the job instead. Because we, as the New Man, the Hyper-Individual, had “got ours,” we threw off the small associational burden, and shifted the responsibility to the government. And, as government always does, when it is given powers that exceed its proper roles and limits, it always seeks to make the most of its transgression. Ironically, the “liberation” of the individual from prior restraints ended up being deadly to our liberty. This never would have happened had we held onto a right understanding of the individual vis-à-vis the commonwealth as a whole, to a rational sense of public-spiritedness.

Essentially, the defense of liberty depends on commonwealthianism, not libertarianism. Locke’s vision for good government involved some government, and our Founder’s elucidated this by defining strictly the limits of that government. But they did not institute anarchy. They did not intend for America to be the functional equivalent of Somalia. As I noted before, public-spiritedness saturated the early life of the Republic. DeTocqueville, in his masterful analysis of early American life, noted this when he said,

“Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types – religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.” (Democracy in America, p. 513)

Public-spiritedness is what makes a society of individuals mutually bound together for their benefit work, without having to allow the government to usurp more and more aspects of the private lives of the citizens. Public-spiritedness is what allows the right balance between res publica and res privata to be maintained. It is what allows liberty to be maintained against its domestic enemies, including the excessive ambitions of those who would harm the good of all the citizens through their demand for private satisfaction. Or, as de Tocqueville elsewhere put it,

“The Americans have used liberty to combat individualism born of equality, and they have won.” (ibid., p. 511)

Public-spiritedness, then, allows private citizens to keep or reclaim roles from the government which the latter has usurped wrongly. This is always the way it is in social systems which traditionally relied upon public participation and contained at least some measure of respect for individual liberty. Yet, when the balance tips towards individual interests over and against the responsibilities of the individual within his larger commonwealth, tyranny and “big government” usually stepped in to fill the vacuum. Among both the Romans and the Greeks of antiquity, we see that when the sense of public spirit declined, whether in the later polis or in the late Republic, monarchy and dictatorship followed.

So, what does this all mean for us as conservatives? It means that we should have a balanced understanding of the place of the individual in society. While society has no right to make illegitimate demands upon the private lives and substance of the individual citizen (something which takes place far too often in America today), at the same time, the individual does not have the right to act as a law unto himself, nor should he act as if he, and only he, is of any concern. We need to understand – and I don't just mean in a superficial sense – that if we wish to live in a civil society, then guess what? We’re going to have to deal with other people. And if we truly believe that excessive government that steps outside of its proper roles is a threat to liberty, then we need to realize that we need to replace government with private associations – including charity, and even things like public works. Included in this is the fact that, as much as some may not like it, religion and religious organizations will necessarily come to the forefront in the public square once again.

We, as conservatives, need to reject the underlying perversion in the understanding of the “individual” that is made by libertarianism. While we certainly have many commonalities with libertarians that can serve as rally points for joint political action, especially in the areas of fiscal policy and our constitutional rights, at the same time we need to understand that conservatism and libertarianism are two different things – and think accordingly. In other words, just as we saw the need for self-government with respect to morality and reason in the first two portions of this essay, so also does this self-government apply to entire society. Those who will not self-govern will be governed by others. Let us learn to self-govern, as a people and as a commonwealth, once again.