the imaginative conservative logo

Why did the centralization of power occur so quickly in America? Why have those genuinely common-good communities that were supposed to have worked hand-in-glove with the federal government suffered so much under the American Regime?…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Thaddeus Kozinski as he explores the instrumentalist and intrinsicist understanding of the political good and how these two understandings shape our understanding of the common good . —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

common goodMichael Hannon and Robert George are both orthodox Catholic thinkers who subscribe to a personalist anthropology and Aristotelian/Thomistic social philosophy, one that interprets the character of the modern, autonomous individual as an evil fiction, one that recognizes the existence and priority of intrinsic, common goods, and one that posits the indispensability of social communities ordered by and to such common goods and the virtues for human flourishing. However, there is a substantial disagreement between them. In the article linked at the end of this essay, Prof. George claims that politics, or the state, political activity, etc., is essentially instrumental, that is, not a good in itself, but only good insofar as it enables the flourishing of a multitude of intrinsically good, sub-political communities, such as families and churches, made up of persons that discover and possess their good only by participation in such communities. Mr. Hannon, on the other hand, claims that politics, or the state, political activity, etc., is essentially an intrinsic good, and as such, even a higher good than the communities it is meant to serve, due to its being more common. Indeed, the political is the architectonic good (subordinate only to the ultra-architectonic, supernatural common good that subsists in the Church, that is, the City of God), since it alone is responsible for and capable of coordinating the activity of the communities within it, with an eye to the greatest common good of all, God Himself, and human beatitude in friendship with Him for eternity.

These two thinkers are good representatives of the two positions regarding the foundation and end of politics that one finds in conservative Catholic circles. These positions do not appear, prima facie, too dissimilar, for they are, after all, in full agreement on very important conservative. Christian basics, i.e., that man has an objective, God-given nature; that good is an objective, knowable transcendental; that common goods are real spiritual goods of spiritual persons taking precedence over individual, material goods; that men have souls; that the purpose of politics is, ultimately, bound up with the care of souls unto eternal salvation; and that the natural law governs all communities and must be authoritatively recognized. But, though in agreement on these fundamentals, there is that not insignificant bone of contention, namely, the nature and end of the political community.

What is the root cause of this disagreement? To discover this, it might help to speculate a bit as to the experiential ground and reasoning process that might have brought them—and us—to their and our positions. What political phenomena, facts, experience, ideas, and considerations might have led Prof. George and the instrumentalists, on the one hand, to conclude that the political good is merely instrumental, and Mr. Hannon and the intrinsicists, that this good is truly intrinsic, on the other? I think the first and last place to look for the answer is the American Regime itself, and particularly, its founding documents.

Regarding, Prof. George’s position, politics as instrumental good: Do not the Declaration of Independence and Constitution indicate explicitly or implicitly, or perhaps just in presupposition, an understanding of the political common good as instrumental? If government is said to be established to secure the pre-political rights of men, to allow them merely to pursue, not enable them to attain, happiness, and to secure the general welfare, not the common good—that is, if the Founding were even remotely Lockean—there is surely a plausible argument to be made that the Founders held the instrumental view of the political common good, or at least the overall thrust of the Founding Documents can be interpreted this way. But, prescinding from the question of Prof. George’s intellectual genealogy for a moment, we can ask why Locke himself might have thought the way he did, that is, rejecting so categorically the traditional Aristotelian account of politics. I think the answer to this is bound up with his experience of the nation-state, only recently on the scene in earnest in Western history when Locke was alive. His experience of the pre- and post-birth of the British nation-state itself—born in the Glorious Revolution of 1688—was an experience that could also explain the Founders’ views, as well as Prof. George’s.

Alasdair Macintyre has made a persuasive case that the nation-state is not and cannot be the custodian of the common good, for, agreeing with Prof. George and the instrumentalists, whatever political good it might embody must be an instrumental one. MacIntyre:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on it’s behalf… It is like being asked to die for the telephone company…. The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.

If this is the case, then the instrumentalist view is right, for he is only describing theoretically what has been the case practically in America from the beginning. In 1787, America was a full-fledged nation-state, though in latency in extent and scope; by now, of course, it has been actualized quite fully (it even seems to be in dotage now—if dotage denotes a nascent police state). So, both then and now, the American Regime is constrained to the kind of goods it can embody and enable by its merely instrumentally good, nation-state essence, as it were, one which, as William Cavanaugh puts it in his landmark essay, is not—and can never be—the keeper of the common good.

Now, subscribing to this understanding of the nation-state, identifying it with American politics ab initio and in concreto, and accepting the idea that the nation-state, by nature, cannot keep anything but instrumental goods does not mean one has to be a Lockean through-and-through, in, say, religion, epistemology, and anthropology. And this is why it seems perfectly reasonable for the instrumentalist to accept everything we have said about the American nation-state, if he does indeed accept it, but demure from Locke and the Enlightenment and affirm the nature and priority of common goods, politics as care of the soul, and the publicly authoritative nature of the natural law and the Roman Catholic Church.

Let us agree that the nation-state, in whatever configuration it happened or happens to be (Federalist or Anti-federalist level of centralization, libertarian-market or welfare state, Republican- or Democrat-controlled, lower or higher taxes, Tea-Party or Occupy Wall St. ethos, George Bush or Barack Obama, is what it is, that is, an alliance, not a common-good institution, suitable for and capable only of providing goods and services to those polis organizations that can (but only with the Alliance’s instrumental help, as the instrumentlist insists) embody and keep common goods. Thus, it is just good philosophy to recognize what is and must be the case, and to act upon it. This, to me, is where Prof. George and the instrumentalists are coming from. Whether he would prefer to live under a state that could indeed keep a common good, such as a medieval French city or an ancient Greek polis, it doesn’t matter; for, the nation-state is here, and here to stay, and we must accept its exigencies and limitations so that we can work with it to uphold the mediating institutions that alone can secure those common goods that we need to flourish and get to heaven.

There isn’t much to add to the instrumentalist account to explain the intrinsicist’s, other than that what the former considers acceptable and normative, the American-alliance-nation-state instrumentally helping sub-political communities to do their intrinsically good things, the latter rejects as unacceptable and impossible. It would be one thing, the instrinsicist might say, if the “Untied Alliance of America” understood itself to be what it should be, merely an alliance of polises, securing only the kinds of private, sub-political goods that the individual polises themselves are unable to secure for themselves, such as protection from foreign invaders, coinage of money, interstate commerce regulation, etc.—precisely what the American Constitution presents itself as being, at least prima facie. However, as the intrinsicist seems to think, the American Government’s true nature as shown in historical action is not a mere alliance, but an alliance-polis, that is, political contradiction, sometimes advertising itself as a polis, sometimes as an alliance, but always masquerading as one or the other to attain more and more power for itself at the expense of the good of its citizens, personal and common, individual and collective, soul and body. And this is not arbitrary, for it is precisely what happens when genuinely political communities are not recognized as what they truly are, more than instrumentally good, and when one expects families and churches to do what only the architectonic political community can do, namely, the coordinating and harmonizing of intrinsic goods in light of, and thereby securing, the common good.

In short, this creation of a Frankenstein-Jekyll-and-Hyde politics is what happens when one charges politics with nothing more than providing instrumental goods to sub-political, non-architectonic, non-political communities. This is, in effect, to destroy politics, and political nature abhors a vacuum. What you get in its place is not limited government and a flourishing civil society of happy and free persons and intrinsically good communities, but a totalitarian-police-state nightmare. In short, for the intrinsicist, the nation-state, absent any polises in which the political good is more than instrumental, will cease being a mere alliance, if it ever were a pure one, and turn into a monstrous anti-polis, pursuing anti-goods to the detriment and eventual eradication of the common good as well as individual goods. Robert Nisbet has traced the history of this in his indispensable The Quest for Community.

For the instrumentalist, on the other hand, there is no need to prophecy such doom, for such intrinsically good-making polises are a thing of the past. But even if they were somehow possible in our religiously-pluralistic, technocratic, nation-state age, such would not need to exist as long as there are flourishing cultural communities embodying and keeping intrinsic common goods, and as long as the state is confined to the duties deriving from its alliance-essence, assisting these communities in their unique role of securing human flourishing and salvation. Thus, both agree that the nation-state shouldn’t try to be a polis, but they disagree in this: Whether the nation-state can remain and function as a mere alliance in the absence of genuinely political polises. Who is right? How to resolve this debate?

Well, I’ll put my two-cents in now. The nation-state of America, since its official beginning in 1787, has indeed presented itself as both a public-interest alliance, aiming only to secure individualist and collectivist goods, such as property and security from foreign aggression, as well as a common-good polis, aiming at intrinsic goods such as virtue, peace, and solidarity. The latter aspiration, however, in the present form of an increasingly centralized, managerial, intrusive, uncontestable, federal-government bureaucracy and military-industrial complex, is much more apparent today, and it is working not so much for the common good but the common evil. This tyrannical tendency of the federal government was much harder to see two hundred years ago because the then, polis-like states still retained a good amount of political hegemony and autonomy. After the Civil War, the Leviathanian nature of the federal government began to reveal itself without a mask.

Domestically: the Obamacare/HHS fiasco, Obergefell, the metastasizing police-surveillance state, the exponentially-declining middle class and increasing pauperization of the ninety-nine percent, the vulgarization, brutalization, illiteracization, and sexualization of mass culture—caused and supported by monopolistic media conglomerates and the federal government; the criminal rapaciousness, systemic usury, and institutionalized and legally protected mendacity of the one percent (both national and global). What we can see here is that the Federal Government is now opposed to the existence and autonomy of genuine, non-alliance, common-good seeking-and-embodying polises within its boundaries. But, wasn’t it always this way? As Christopher Ferrara has persuasively shown, the individual states never really had any real rights, pace the rhetoric of the Tenth Amendment, which, as he shows, takes away with the left hand what it gives with the right. The Anti-federalists were right. As Locke would have it, all groups, practices, and institutions that actually aim at the common good, virtue, and human flourishing in the United States are, by definition and law, privatized and depoliticized, relegated to “civil society,” or as Rawls called it, the “background culture.” Would these flourish better in such a marginalized, depoliticized, and demoralized position, as American political mythology insists? The early history of the United States says no. Can they flourish at all, barring the miracle of grace, in such a position? The state of contemporary American culture suggest they cannot.

The U.S. Constitution affords the Federal Government a political monopoly over every citizen, as the Anti-federalists warned it would. The newly-federated government did not exercise this monopoly at the beginning, as it had appeared to delegate much governing authority to the states. In other words, it was, de facto, precluded from monopolizing political and economic power by those non-Madisonian/non-Lockean, Aristotelian/Pius XI/distributist/agrarian/Tocquevillian/subsidiarist principles and practices that remained in the American political culture—at least for a little while. The states grew less and less sovereign over their own citizens, and are now practically non-existent as competing loci of power with the “Federal” (read, Leviathan). Why is it that the states in America gave up their governing autonomy so soon after the Constitution was implemented? And why, after the Civil War, did things get exponentially worse in terms of centralization of power and loss of states’ rights?

Was it because authentic classical liberalism was rejected, as Prof. George might say? Or was it that classical liberal principles and institutions were fully actualized, as Hanby has argued? In the absence of the balancing dynamic of non-liberal principles and institutions, such as community-integrating-and-substantive-human-good-embodied practices and institutions, that is, polises, what can a nation-state do otherwise than create citizens and institutions in its intrinsic-good-eschewing image? Was the centralized statism that Lincoln set in motion in order to “save the union” intended or unintended by him? By the Founding Fathers? What does it mean for a state to be “indivisible” other than that it has become a sacred monolith? If the main principles of the American Founding, i.e., limited, instrumental-good-providing government, religious freedom, and the preservation of inalienable human rights, are not the root of the problem, as Prof. George, I think, would say, then one has to ask why precisely these principles were not stuck to, as it were, why centralization of power occurred as it did and so quickly, why those genuinely common-good communities that were supposed to have worked hand-in-glove with the alliance-government have suffered so much under the American Regime.

The good can only be truly known, embodied, practiced, and possessed in communities and practices of virtue, as both Prof. George and Mr. Hannon, the instrumentalist and intrinsicist, accept. But what if common-good communities of intrinsic worth can only embody and enable intrinsic goods if they are also, to some extent, political communities, that is, ones with real political and legal teeth, self-sufficient and architectonic, with actual deliberative, judiciary, and executive power? What if the ability of smaller intrinsic-good-embodying-and-enabling communities to survive and flourish requires the larger society in which they exist to itself be embodied politically in a more-than-instrumental way? What if the sine qua non of the solution to a government out of control and at odds with basic human goods is a radical alternative to the alliance-nation-state of America? What if we desperately need a newly revamped and reconfigured and workable Aristotelian polis, one subordinate to the Divine-polis of the Roman Catholic Church, and one workable in a contemporary context? What if the political order by nature, and ineradicably so, even the American one, is all about intrinsic goods? In other words, what if Aristotle—and Aquinas, and MacIntyre, and Leo XIII—was right?

*See essays by Michael Hannon and Robert George here and here

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in November 2015. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: