‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

27 November 2009

An Organic Tory Appraisal of ResPublica’s Launch

Yesterday morning witnessed the launch of another conservative think-tank, yet with a welcomed twist: instead of an addition to the number of laisser-faire organisations, Phillip Blond’s ResPublica has an ambitious aim: ‘the project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.’

Blond is a British theologian and academic who has garnered much attention in the realm of politics and the media for his promotion of ‘Red Toryism’, which he describes as a movement that sidesteps the atomising effects of the neo-liberal market and the enervating effects of the State.

Red Toryism, therefore, is in one manner a repudiation of ‘Third Way’ thinking, if the Third Way is seen as a middle route of accommodation between business and government. While not absolutely inimical to the interests of either sector, Blond argues that when they are combined, a collusion is formed that is detrimental to the welfare of the common citizen, resulting in monopoly capitalism and the ‘servile State’ (the topic of Hilaire Belloc’s eponymous volume on the rise of a permanent proletariat).

Instead, in his opening speech for ResPublica, ‘The Future of Conservatism’, Blond calls for a new age of the ‘civil state’ and the ‘moralised market’.

As one who is anxious to defend the idea of the State against its ubiquitous naysayers on the right, I applaud Blond’s assertion that ‘the state embodies in structured form a common concern—it represents the coalesced will of the people that there is a level below which you cannot fall and an undertaking that we as a body politic have a stake, a care and indeed a provision for you and every other citizen.’

In my own formulation, borrowing upon the personalist philosophy of the individual embedded in communal relationships—echoed in Blond’s ‘shout-out’ to Edmund Burke’s society of past, present, and future generations—the State is at the very least a provider of last resort, confirming that all citizens have access to the necessities of life without which society itself suffers: basics such as food, clothing, and shelter, elementary education and healthcare provisions. The assumption is that if any of these bare requirements are lacking, not only the individual suffers, but society as a whole is denied the corollary benefits of its citizen’s success.

Statism, however, is the constant conservative bugbear; it is the apotheosis of the State that, in the words of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, ‘would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself.’ In Blond’s critical assessment,

The welfare state nationalised society because it replaced mutual communities with passive fragmented individuals whose most sustaining relationship was not with his or her neighbor or his or her community but with a distant and determining centre.

Blond next addresses monopoly capitalism by sketching out his vision of a moralised market: when corporations are allowed, through State connivance, to drive out competitors and, through mergers and State-sanctified obstructions, thwart new entrants, then it is only the State that can police what stalls remain on the high street (the British equivalent of the American ‘Main Street’).

If a true free market economy were allowed to thrive, then the competitive urge to win customers would serve as its own system of regulation—freeing the State from micro-management to those minimum functions of upholding the formal laws of the marketplace—and be a boon for sometime proletarians to become owners of productive property in their own right. (In Blond’s general prescriptions for the free economy, it is amazing how close this radical Red Tory comes to espousing the anti-monopoly, libertarian economic policy of theorists such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.)

Blond concludes his remarks with a summary of the ‘associative society’. In the past—most notably his speech for the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project (now posted on ResPublica), a Demos think-tank division of which he was briefly director—his triad of goals had been to ‘re-moralise the market, re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor’; and while he has spoken previously about dissociative society, this, to my mind, is his fullest explication of the associate society.

I note this well, for when Blond speaks about association expressing ‘both individuality and community’, that ‘it is good men and women taking responsibility and trying to ascertain the common good’, he broaches what is often termed Thomistic personalism.

The best introduction to personalism is Jacques Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good, which, ‘In reaction to excessive claims in the name of individualism and equal excesses in the service of collectivism,’ explained J.W. Koterski, ‘attempts to make the necessary distinctions between the inalienable rights inherent in every human being as person and the duties intrinsic to membership in civil society.’

Maritain wrote that an individual in community is to be considered ‘a part in a whole’, whereas an individual qua person is to be considered ‘a whole in a whole’. More specifically,

it is in the nature of things that man, as part of society, should be ordained to the common good and the common work for which the members of the city are assembled. It is in the nature of things that he should, as the need arises, renounce activities which are nobler in themselves than those of the body politic for the salvation of the community. It is also in the nature of things that social life should impose numerous restraints and sacrifices upon his life as a person, considered as a part of the whole.

As for being a ‘whole’ in his own right, ‘Man is constituted a person made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city’.

This dynamic is captured beautifully by Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris: ‘It is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature [...] for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone.’ ‘But on final analysis,’ the Pope reminds us in this encyclical,

Society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.

In Blond’s casting, then, society is neither ‘a mass act of collectivisation’, nor ‘a collection of self willing individuals’: ‘Such a construal reveals that individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same debased coinage producing a society that endlessly oscillates between state authoritarianism and anarchic libertarianism.’

In his own formulation of a personalist conception of society, Blond believes that

This society is civil—it is formed by the free association of citizens—and these groups balance and express both individual freedom and collective formation [...] In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity. They are the means by which we achieve our end; they are not the end itself. That end will be decided by free citizens in association sharing the practice and discernment of the common good.

All in all, there is much in Phillip Blond’s inaugural address for an organic Tory to admire. Having followed the development of his Red Tory thesis over the course of a year, I have noticed a clarification and deepening of ideas: a communitarian bent has become more amenable to individual impulses; a scepticism of the internal operations of the free economy has become more accepting of the legitimate needs of the market; and a sometime ambivalence toward State action has become more generously aware of its benefits for the common weal.

An important question concerns the reception of Blond within the fold of the British Conservative party, with a national election no more than six months away and its formation of Government likely in hand. From the perspective of a domestic policy framework, Blond’s articulation of a conservative vision should be acceptable to both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ Tories (he has been silent on other affairs that the Ministry will face, such as parliamentary reform, overseas wars, and the fate of UK within the European Union). As such, he already has the confidence of leader David Cameron and key members of the Shadow Front Bench.

Moreover, Red Toryism has the potential to appeal to voters who would otherwise cast ballots for Labour or the Liberal Democrats—a boon for any political party which aims to enlarge its power base and core support.

For Phillip Blond and ResPublica, then, their future in British politics has enjoyed a promising start. This organic Tory awaits further announcements with anticipation.

13 November 2009

Resurrecting Mediaeval Political Economy

‘Whither conservatism in the 21st century?’ asks Neil Reynolds in an intriguing column for The Globe and Mail, ‘It takes a conservative to revive a community’. He focuses on one recent development from the right which takes as its exemplar mediaeval society, which Phillip Blond, director of the British think-tank ResPublica, calls ‘Red Toryism’ (which shares few characteristics with its Canadian cousin).

In his Globe review, Reynolds draws upon ‘Does Red Toryism Have an American Future?’, my own perspective on Blond and his political programme. In making his valid and thoughtful appraisal, however, Reynolds presents just one view of mediaeval economics which was to evolve during the late Middle Ages; thus, a wider overview may be in order, especially as much of organic Toryism is dependent upon this mediaeval framework.

Organic Toryism is itself not unmindful of the limitations of a strict adherence to mediaeval practices, but for all that is committed to those elements that remain vibrant. Some of the positive aspects arising from a communal sensibility are examined in my essay ‘Society, Our Natural Route to the Common Good’ and on ‘The Free Economy Plus’ site—where, I might add, can be found assurances that such organic society does not ‘supplant socialism’ (make your own inferences). For now, I shall focus on features of the free economy that have their origins in the late Middle Ages.

Reynolds opines, for example, that a mediaeval revival in political economy means ‘to restrict capitalist competition and to advance an entrenched sense of community’.

Yet it is arguable, prima facie, that restrictions are already in place (as proponents of the free market scoff at naysayers who point to unfettered markets), since capitalist competition is already restricted by the rule of law. Such reasoning is the Red Tory detractor’s ‘red herring’ if you will, as the alternative to existing conditions—a true unfettered market—is the sort of anarcho-capitalism advocated by libertarian theorists like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. No doubt an intriguing view of economic society, but one which is by no means mainstream among academics and laymen.

There are, of course, varying degrees of restriction from which to choose, and defining what consists of fair and unfair, supportive and hindering, levels of interference is the stuff of political debate: culminating in defining one as either a classical liberal or a democratic socialist—with an organic or ‘progressive’ conservative somewhere in-between, aligning himself with one group or the other as circumstances warrant (for instance, if the times demand a defence of liberty or an expression of communal adhesion), and more often with the former than with the latter.

For many such conservatives, it is appropriate to paraphrase Churchill: that capitalism as an economic system exhibits social inadequacies, but it is better than all the other systems that have been tried and found wanting.

So, while the mediaeval guild model is tempting for its advocacy of private property and communal responsibility, it isn’t perfect. ‘The guilds,’ Reynolds writes, ‘entrusted the price of bread (for example) to bakers alone.’ Morris Bishop detailed this impediment to capitalism in The Middle Ages:

The purpose of the craft guild, like any trade union, was to promote the economic welfare of its members and guarantee full employment at high wages by restricting membership. It held a local monopoly of its product, discouraged competition among guildsmen, and suppressed scab labor. It regulated work procedures and hours of labor. It set wages, but maximum, not minimum wages. It standardized the quality and price of the product and opposed innovation. It forbade price cutting, overtime work, public advertising, overenergetic salesmanship, the introduction of new tools, the employment of one’s wife or underage children. The guild’s aim was regularization, the preservation of the status quo. Hence it failed to adjust to technological progress, which took place outside the guilds.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of capitalist theory can readily identify the conflicting zeitgeists: monopoly enterprise, aversion to innovation, static prices and wages. The modern era is epitomised by their very opposites: by a plethora of entrepreneurs competing amongst themselves to offer consumers better and newer products, at prices that challenge the business acumen of their rivals.

But one must not assume that this guild model is the only one to be drawn from an epoch that stretches across a millennium. English historian George Holmes observed that the homogenous economic environment of the mediaeval towns and villages was a major contribution to the rise of cities (and capitalism) in the nascent Renaissance. His obituary in The Telegraph paid tribute to the fact that

...Holmes suggested that the late medieval universities, far from being creative centres of new ideas, were outclassed by the dynamism and originality of cities without universities, such as Venice, Florence and London. The case may have been overstated, but the work was memorable for its demonstration of his intellectual courage and range.

His vision of the later middle ages differed profoundly from the oppressive opulence evoked by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.

Holmes emphasised instead the new cultural energies released by the combination of economic crisis and political accident that allowed the emergence of a distinctive urban culture in this period, largely free of princely or ecclesiastical control.

It is in these later decades of the ‘dark ages’, throwing off feudal authoritarianism, that the bonds of accepted communal mores began to loosen, encouraging a burgeoning interest in the science of economics. Many of these discoveries would be forgotten until several centuries later, but the record indicates that much of the novelty of Adam Smith and classical liberalism had an overlooked mediaeval provenance.

The Spanish university of Salamanca was one intellectual centre in ferment, and in ‘The World of Salamanca’, Llewellyn Rockwell sketches a brief overview:

The real founders of economic science actually wrote hundreds of years before Smith. They were not economists as such, but moral theologians, trained in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they came to be known as the Late Scholastics. These men, most of whom taught in Spain, were at least as pro-free market as the much-later Scottish tradition. Plus, their theoretical foundation was even more solid: they anticipated the theories of value and price of the ‘marginalists’ of late 19th-century Austria.

One breakthrough that had been lost to the sands of time concerned the theory of value, replaced by a Smithian-Ricardian-Marxian notion comprising factors of production and expended labour.

Recalling Cardinal Juan de Lugo’s assertion that ‘the “just price” depends on so many factors that it can be known only to God’—‘Pretium justum mathematicum licet soli Deo notum’—Jerzy Strzelecki, former Polish undersecretary of state, explains in ‘The School of Salamanca Saw This Coming’ that

In the theology of the scholastics at Salamanca, ‘just price’ was thus tantamount to the market price, resulting naturally from interactions between buyers and sellers. Attempts at setting a ‘just price’ to replace a natural market price, whether by civil or ecclesiastical authorities, were viewed with deep skepticism: weren’t such attempts usurpations of God’s knowledge?

These usurpations, of various kinds, were the mainstay of conventional economics until Carl Menger cleared a path through the confusion and formulated his theory of marginal utility. ‘For this reason, the justness of a price is not dictated by how much the item costs or how much labor went into acquiring it,’ notes Rockwell.

All that matters is what the common market value is in the place and at the time it is sold. [...] It seems like such a simple point, but it was missed by economists for centuries until the Austrian School rediscovered this ‘subjective theory of value’ and incorporated it into microeconomics.

Salamanca was on the forefront of this economic revolution: principles outlining liberty in international trade, the removal of barriers to interest charges (and prohibitions against usury), currency exchange, and laisser-faire policies regarding the State—all owe their origins to this Spanish School.

What, then, are some mediaeval economic teachings to which even Reynolds could subscribe? Again, three that leap immediately to mind are a respect for private property, an aversion toward monopoly, and a celebration of spontaneous order.

To be fair, the scrutiny to which Reynolds subjects the neo-mediaevalists is not entirely unwarranted: an organic Tory, unlike libertarians, does not view these economic concepts as necessarily absolute, but rather as minor ends in service to a greater end, the common good. ‘If liberty of purchase and of sale, of mortgage and of inheritance was restricted,’ wrote Hilaire Belloc in The Servile State, ‘it was restricted with the social object of preventing the growth of an economic oligarchy which could exploit the rest of the community.

The restraints upon liberty were restraints designed for the preservation of liberty; and every action of Mediæval Society, from the flower of the Middle Ages to the approach of their catastrophe, was directed towards the establishment of a State in which men should be economically free through the possession of capital and of land.

In contemporary terms, owners of private property have charitable responsibilities to the poor, single-source utilities may be in the control of private or public owners, with regulatory oversight to safeguard consumer welfare—with these regulations, as a component of the legal system, acting as a brake and moderating influence on pure spontaneity.

Belloc’s catastrophe for the modern organic Tory is the lack of equilibrium, with society seemingly enthralled to the individual or the State, one or the other, but infrequently and haphazardly balancing the two.

The organic alternative may be a reasonable connotation of what progressive conservatism is all about: a willingness to use legitimate means to effect social change, whether through the communal instincts of civil society or the powers exercised by the State; the alternative is the unalloyed, self-interested solipsism of individualism. If this sounds like a caricature, it gives credence to and underlines Aristotle’s axiom that man is a social animal.

Yet even libertarians should welcome a reinvigorated faith in community for, motivated by a true spirit of voluntary co-operation (and not coercion), it would supplant the State as the pre-eminent socialist ideal of collective action.

Were these few principles of organic Toryism to enjoy a sympathetic hearing, in which the symbiotic mediaeval relationship between the individual and his wider community are allowed to flourish, then perhaps it could really become, as Reynolds suggests, ‘the dominant political philosophy of the next generation.’

05 November 2009

DMI Website Back On-line

Happy news! The website for Disraeli-Macdonald Institute is back on-line; you can now find DMI here.

At present, only the front page and a few ancillary pages are up-and running; the two original divisions, the Young England Research Unit and the Centre for Confederation Politics, will require more time as I relearn some website basics and experiment with a possible redesign—Yahoo! GeoCities rather spoiled me with its simplicity.

However, a number of improvements should already be apparent: the screen positioning is centred (or should be!) and the type font is larger for reading pleasure. Plus each page has a ‘DMI title’ on the top, with easy-to-use navigation links on the bottom. A scrolling marquee offers the possibility for brief, topical commentary, too.

But fair warning: There will be many bugs to be worked out before DMI is fully operational.

As always, your feedback is appreciated.

So, don’t forget to revise your bookmarks and check back often for new material.

S.M. MacLean
Disraeli-Macdonald Institute

26 October 2009

DMI Website Transition

The website for Disraeli-Macdonald Institute will be going off-line—temporarily.

Since January 2008, DMI has been hosted, gratis, by the fine folks at Yahoo! GeoCities. This spring, however, Yahoo announced that, as part of its restructuring programme, it would be phasing out its free server sites. All such sites, including DMI, will no longer be available as of 26 October.

I have been mulling over a number of alternatives to keep DMI as an internet presence, and it is hoped that the Institute will be back on-line by the end of this week—depending on how quickly I can remaster basic web technology. (Yahoo’s simplicity was one of its many charms!) And, if fortune shines upon me, this transition will allow for a slightly improved design.

So, in the interim, don’t forget DMI’s Twitter feed at OrganicTory, plus surf over to Facebook where a number of aficionados have set up a page for the ‘Friends of the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute for Organic Toryism’.

My thanks to Yahoo! GeoCities for 22 months of reliable web hosting, and watch this space for further DMI updates.

S.M. MacLean
Disraeli-Macdonald Institute

06 October 2009

Does Red Toryism Have an American Future?

Several weeks ago in a posting for Front Porch Republic, Mark Mitchell introduced the work of Phillip Blond and asked, ‘Do his ideas translate to the US?’

Blond, director of the nascent ResPublica think tank, is a British theologian and political philosopher who became popularly known in mid-2008 for his advocacy of Red Toryism—which shares a common provenance with its Canadian cousin, though their trajectories have diverged—that he summarised this year in two well-received essays, ‘The Civic State’ and ‘The Rise of the Red Tories’. (More of Blond’s writings can be found on this PDF list of readings in Progressive Conservatism.)

He describes Red Toryism as a ‘conservatism with deeper roots than 1979 [thus, anti-Thatcherite], and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism [RT]’. Blond expanded on this theme—and hints at the connotations of ‘red’—in a chapter he wrote for Is the Future Conservative?:

It is the Conservatives who now wish to resurrect the communal and restore the social. The tory logic of family, locality and civil and voluntary society is a truly radical agenda. Moreover, the attempted restoration of society is founded upon a successful critique of the centralised state and to a lesser extent the libertarian individual.

To return to Mitchell’s question of U.S. suitability, one possible answer begins with (1) an hypothesis from George Grant—that British Toryism has its roots in a feudal consciousness, whereas American conservatism is born of the individualism of the Enlightenment—and (2) a quote from Benjamin Disraeli’s Vindication of the English Constitution: ‘Nations have characters as well as individuals, and national character is precisely the quality which the new sect of statesmen in their schemes and speculations either deny or overlook.’ But first an overview of what it means to be a Red Tory.

Blond’s primary antagonist is monopoly capitalism, in which the few (with the compliance of the State) own the means of production and the many are wage earners; his prescription is to ‘recapitalise the poor’ and share the capitalist means of wealth production following the distributive guidelines as sketched in Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, which took as its own model the independent farms and artisan co-operatives of the late Middle Ages: ‘Above all, most jealously did the Guild safeguard the division of property, so that there should be formed within its ranks no proletariat upon the one side, and no monopolising capitalist upon the other.’

Blond argues that monopoly capitalism has been allowed to thrive because of an ideological liberalism that favours the logic of the market over the demands of the community—a situation aided by State welfarism that has used redistribution schemes to keep the working poor content and subservient: this forms the basis of Belloc’s ‘servile State’. Blond’s answer is to break up these monopolies that have grown up under State sponsorship and to return to the ideal of self-reliant, property-owning communities:

The civic state aims to blend the benefits of welfare and the market mechanism not by favouring one or the other but by exceeding both. The Conservative’s new civic settlement privileges the associative above the alienated, the responsible over the self-serving and (yes I know this is shocking) the communal over the individual [CS].

In these respects, Blond’s ideas translate easily into an American culture built upon the mythology of individual initiative and small-town independence. But, for Belloc at least (Blond is more circumspect in his accounts), the State was not principally a malign force, and was rather one factor among many in realising the common good—an ideal shared by organic Toryism.

In The Servile State, for instance, he wrote of the mediaeval Crown as a protector of the interests of the poor and of central government as a regulator of stability by ensuring that no one class in society became so large as to unbalance the harmony of the whole (though it is doubtful that this is a subtle endorsement of redistribution as contemporarily conceived):

The King of England would have had in his own hands an instrument of control of the most absolute sort. He would presumably have used it, as a strong central government always does, for the weakening of the wealthier classes, and to the indirect advantage of the mass of the people.

It is here that Blond’s developing thesis (if he keeps true to a foundation laid by Belloc) may part company with American political practice, if we are to accept Grant’s thesis that the United States by-and-large subscribes to this Enlightenment axiom, ‘that government is best which governs least’, and Disraeli’s belief that ‘nations have characters’ which should not be dismissed as irrelevant.

While libertarians will fully support the end of monopoly capitalism as the removal of unfair government intervention giving free play to competition, subtleties in the Blond-Belloc approach to the State—that revolve around contradictory British Tory and American conservative sensibilities—are open to discussion by the left and the right: Can the State be a legitimate means of last resort, where and when civil society is found wanting? Such is ‘subsidiarity’ as defined by Catholic Social Teaching.

More controversially, can civil/voluntary associations and the State take upon themselves certain quotidian functions (perhaps once exclusively the domain of the private sphere) that contribute to the public good? Health care reform is the battleground for this debate, as Democrats, Republicans, and ordinary citizens argue the merits of co-operative and government-sponsored health insurance—the so-called ‘public option’—and whether or not this aid for the middle class is the slippery slope (and Trojan Horse) toward single-payer, ‘socialised’ medical services. As Blond warns, ‘British conservatism must not, however, repeat the American error of preaching “morals plus the market” while ignoring the fact that economic liberalism has often been a cover for monopoly capitalism and is therefore just as socially damaging as left-wing statism [RT].’

In answer, then, to Mark Mitchell’s initial query, it seems likely that America will eagerly follow Phillip Blond’s path along civic empowerment, if its full benefits are spelled out, but that any Red Tory lessons leading to State activism may be a road too far.

27 September 2009

Is Organic Toryism the ‘Bat’ of Politics?

It is difficult for an organic Tory not to become glum and despondent while reading newspaper accounts of political events, and assessing partisan commentators who dissect national and international politics. His allegiances are torn, his judgements conflicted. He must feel like the bat in Aesop’s fable of the ‘Battle between the Birds and the Beasts’.

From the media the organic Tory learns that the ‘left’ calls for continued and more generous government spending in areas of social policy, while the ‘right’ condemns most all State activity that touches upon the personal and the private, concluding with the refrain that ‘government is best which governs least.’ Similarly, in Aesop’s tale, Birds and Beasts come to blows, each warring faction entreating our friend the bat to join its side. But the bat, as a winged mammal, was at a loss: With which armed force was it to enlist? The indecision accounted for, in part, because the bat considered itself above the fray and aloof from the travails of the combatants, telling the Birds that he was instead a ‘beast’ and, to the Beasts, a ‘bird’. The bat, as it were, had ‘no dog (or crow, apparently) in this fight’.

(For even more anthropomorphic atmosphere, one can imagine that Birds—due to their vegetarian habits and mild disposition, perch upon the left in the wild kingdom, while Beasts—‘red in tooth and claw’—form upon the right. While not a perfect analogy, the bat is the misplaced omnivore in this slipshod analogy.)

The organic Tory, however, far from seeing himself untouched by the debates between left and right, is able to agree and disagree with the tenor of their arguments, assessed upon their strengths and not their ideological origins. Though by temperament he favours conservative attitudes, by being ‘organic’ he is amenable to the claims for evolution (though not revolution), improvements (less so innovations); ‘Tory’ serving as a shorthand for a traditionalist’s scepticism toward contemporary conservatism’s affinity for libertarianism. He listens to all the points made, for and against, and weighs them on their merits. He appreciates the benefits of State action and the virtues of individual liberty. His stance, rather, is one of moderation and compromise—the classic via media—adapting the better elements of each position and melding them into a complementary whole.

Well, not exactly—at least not if an organic Tory is to have a practical, principled programme to call his own, and not a pastiche of ideas cobbled together for the sake of ending antagonistic squabbles and not for a larger, more ennobling outcome. Policy wonks will often exclaim, usually proudly and by way of explication, that if liberals and conservatives equally excoriate their plans, then they must be doing something right ... err, correct. But for Aristotle, the aim of moderation was ‘the right course’, not the least common denominator nor a compromise that ‘all could live with’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (London: Kegan Paul, 1893), Aristotle asserted that ‘the middle character is in all cases to be praised, but that we ought to incline sometimes toward excess, sometimes towards deficiency; for in this way we shall most easily hit the mean and attain to right doing (ii, 9).’

The objective was never the popular or the politically expedient, but always ‘right doing’.

And such should be the programme of an organic Tory, taking circumstances as he finds them, and calibrating between excess or deficiency as necessary; in this case, between liberalism and conservatism, respectively, in order to achieve the best humanly possible action available—with principle his North Star.

There may be times when the State should use its legislative and executive powers to set in motion events to help people achieve the common good, and others when individuals and civil society, more intimately connected with the issue at hand, can themselves solve their problems without the intervention of an external authority ‘removed’ by time and place.

Of course, Aristotle argued that ‘it is not all actions nor all passions that admit of moderation (ii, 6)’: Can a ‘little bit’ of murder be the right thing to do? What of theft? Of adultery? Politically speaking, there may be areas of private action where any role for the State is unwarranted and obtrusive; similarly, the State has its own legitimate sphere of activity where private involvement is wrong, such as in the establishment and execution of law and order.

All of Aesop’s fables end with a moral: For the bat, ostracised by both Birds and Beasts when peace was won, its lesson was that ‘He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends.’ Is the organic Tory likewise so isolated? Unlike the bat, he feels himself very much invested in the outcome of events, seeking to contribute and to steer them toward a just and equitable politics. Aristotle well knew that the pursuit of the right course was never easy, since ‘on this account it is a hard thing to be good; for finding the middle or the mean in each case is a hard thing (ii, 9)’. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort.

Unlike the bat, the organic Tory must take sides and defend his understanding of the via media that will lead to the right course. Unlike the bat, the organic Tory must join in the fray and contribute to the harmony that is the aim of any politics of the common good.

18 May 2009

Feudal Influences of the Canadian Crown

Along comes another Victoria Day, with the requisite toasts from supporters of monarchy and calls from its detractors to establish a republic.

Yet there is one feature of the Crown-in-Canada so subtle as to go unnoticed by friend and foe alike.

In Lament for a Nation, George Grant distinguished between the rise of the Canadian and American nations: Canada, either as a collection of French or British colonies, enjoyed a governing tradition with roots stretching back to mediaeval times; whereas the United States was born in revolution to many of these same traditions.

Feudalism was the prevailing political system in the Middle Ages, and for all of its pejorative connotations and real failings, noblemen were expected to provide the lower orders with the necessities of life. Motivations weren’t entirely altruistic, since it was the peasants and labourers who worked the land and maintained the feudal lord’s vast property-holdings. Still, over generations, a theory of noblesse oblige evolved that informed habits and customs.

At the apex was the prince, and by the eighteenth century the prerogatives of the monarchy included such activities as granting monopoly charters and overseeing a mercantilist system of international trade.

The thirteen American colonies were at the receiving end of this British imperial policy and, having imbibed the Enlightenment zeitgeist of individual initiative and free-market economics more so than their northern neighbours, they rebelled and achieved sovereignty. British North America, meanwhile, remained loyal and slowly over time achieved responsible government and independent status.

Even to-day, however, elements of our respective pasts are evident: there is an ease among Canadians with government economic intervention and provision of welfare programmes that are still largely considered anathema in the United States, where civil society trumps the State. Part of our comfort level, I suggest, is an unconscious holdover attributable to our constitutional monarchy, born of feudal sensibilities.

If Canada were to become a republic, severing its ties to the British Royal Family, would these welfare provisions end? Would we suddenly become less amenable to government assistance for those in need and adopt a harsh social darwinism?

Hardly, but a not insignificant pillar in the social structure would have been pulled away, since the Crown — either in the person of the reigning monarch or the serving governor-general — personifies as ‘Head of State’ in a duo-manner unmatched by an interchangeable holder of a constitutional office. This is also why monarchists highlight royal patronage of charitable foundations, since it emphasises our reciprocal responsibilities apart from the beneficial ministrations of the State.

So, establishing a Canadian republic may not be such a benign constitutional reform, as cutting our links to the Crown may bring with it the loss of social influences integral (no matter how unsuspected) to our national character.

Thoughts to ponder this Victoria Day.

08 May 2009

A Defence of Free Markets and the Rule of Law

A Reply to Chris Bowen’s ‘Neo-liberalism is dead as people realise markets need regulation (The Sunday Morning Herald, 6 May 2009)’:

Chris Bowen’s article on Phillip Blond’s progressive conservative philosophy highlights a welcome opportunity to set the market system within the aims of the common good.

An implication raised, however — ‘that markets work better with a degree of regulation’ — is that it is necessary to augment the conventional respect for rule of law: that all forms of regulation are treated either indifferently or with aversion by the market.

To the contrary, a case can be made that markets are only efficient when they abide by internal moral obligations. Abuses of capitalism are assaults upon its very own economic prescriptions.

A fractional banking system of catastrophic over-extension is a violation of the trust between depositor and lender, and whether a more sound basis of reserve ratios is maintained speaks more to the wisdom of regulators than with market prerequisites.

Likewise, monopolisation (animating Blond’s arguments for the wide distribution of property and capital) lies principally at the feet of regulatory intent, since a tenet of the open market is expansive consumer choice made possible by diverse entrepreneurial innovation.

We may be witnessing less the death of neo-liberalism than a renewed appreciation of the moral implications inherent in the free economy, and a determination that its imperatives are neither ignored nor manipulated for immoral gain.

[See DMI’s ‘Free Economy Plus]

27 February 2009

Charting the ‘Right Course’ to the Mean

At the conclusion of a joint blog written with fellow New York Times columnist Gail Collins, ‘The Propeller Heads’ Dilemma (17 February)’, David Brooks confessed:

The odd thing is very few conservatives consider me conservative any more because I am so pro-government. But the events of the past few weeks have made me sound like a raving libertarian. The administration has taken its faith in government to such an extreme I’m turning into Ayn Rand. Help!

The Organic Tory has heard Mr Brooks’s plea, and aid is forthcoming. Not surprisingly, Aristotle and Aquinas prefigured the solution to his dilemma in explaining the roles of ‘the mean’ and ‘prudence’ in politics.

One may well ask: where on the political spectrum can you both take a ‘pro-government’ stand and yet also ‘sound like a raving libertarian’? I suggest—in the abstract, without putting any specific opinion to the test—that Mr Brooks has described what Aristotle called in the second book of The Nicomachean Ethics the mean.

The mean is ‘in relation to us that which is neither excessive or deficient’ nor fixed; the other mean, in relation to a thing, is ‘equidistant from the extremes’, as the six-inch mark on a foot ruler. As such, of this mean of human affairs, ‘every knowledgeable person avoids excess and deficiency, but looks for the mean and chooses it—not the mean of the thing, but the mean relative to us.’ Aristotle notes that this mean ‘is not one and the same for all’; it is variable both in respect to events and to people (one possible reason why, for Brooks, some ‘very few conservatives consider me conservative any more’).

Along the political spectrum, the two extremes of government action—of excess or deficiency—are statism and libertarianism, respectively. The mean lies somewhere between the two, not necessarily equidistant from either, but in the manner of a sliding scale, depending on the situation in hand. ‘I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction,’ wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. ‘Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’

Not every event in human affairs admits of a mean, however. Examples Aristotle gives are adultery and murder; there is no case in which a little bit of adultery—but not too much, and at the appropriate time—hits the right mark:

All these, and more like them, are so called as being evil in themselves; it is not excess or deficiency of them that is evil. In their case, then, it is impossible to act rightly; one is always wrong. Nor does acting rightly or wrongly in such cases depend upon circumstances…

Yet in matters of State action, most people would admit that there are moments when intervention is inappropriate (Brooks as libertarian), and other instances when only the State has the resources at its disposal to preserve the common good (Brooks as pro-government). An obvious problem is deciding when these intrusions are legitimate and justified and when they are not. The answer lies in prudence.

Prudence, taught Thomas Aquinas, is ‘right reason applied to action (Summa Theologiae, II-II.47.2, contra).’ Once an outcome is chosen, it only remains to deliberate on the different ways to accomplish it—weighing their various merits, strengths, and weaknesses—to decide on the preferred method to obtain the ends, and then to act. This action may depend upon the levers of the State, or be left to the private initiative of civil society. Prudence was one of the highest qualifications for the politician, and the sine qua non of leadership.

Accordingly, since it belongs to prudence rightly to counsel, judge, and command concerning the means of obtaining a due end, it is evident that prudence regards not only the private good of the individual, but also the common good of the multitude (II-II.47.10, c).

David Brooks avowed the significance of prudence in an article written at the height of last year’s American Presidential elections. In ‘Why Experience Matters (NYT, 16 September 2008)’, he stated:

It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.

What is prudence? It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation. It is the ability to absorb the vast flow of information and still discern the essential current of events — the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight.

How is prudence acquired? Through experience. The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t.

It is why men of experience—tested in the crucible of life and moulded by ‘epistemological modesty’ (Brooks’s term in ‘The Propeller Heads’ Dilemma’ for knowing what you don’t know)—are more invaluable in political affairs than those of mere theoretical abstraction: ‘When we are discussing actions, although general statements have a wider application, particular statements are closer to the truth,’ Aristotle advised in Book Two. ‘This is because actions are concerned with particular facts, and theories must be brought into harmony with them.’ Whereas Aquinas warned against overconfidence in a rationalism divorced from practical expertise: ‘The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects (ST, I-II.94.4, c).’

What is true of the wisdom of individuals is also true of the collected wisdom of society, accumulated over generations:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discern the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason… (Burke, Reflections).

This naked reason bred hubris; to the contrary, Brooks remarked, ‘The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance (‘Propeller Heads’).’

And so the prudent politician is one of experience, of history, and of action, who weighs decisions against their likely consequences, while aiming for the political mean:

This much, then, is clear: in all our conduct it is the mean that is to be commended. But one should incline sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency, because in this way we shall most easily hit upon the mean, that is, the right course (Nicomachean Ethics).

The Organic Tory (and his fellow travellers) is apt to incline toward excess of State activity (by way of positive subsidiarity and programmes for the public good); the laisser-faire conservative’s comfort zone is inclined toward deficiency (relying on voluntary associations). But the shared ground and aims of both wings of Conservatism—the broad church approach—is still ‘the right course’ in realising the common good.

This dynamism, especially as it relates to the economic sphere, is captured in a passage from John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus:

Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. [...] However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain, as was claimed by those who argued against any rules in the economic sphere. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis (§48).

The State is to provide the legal framework in which a free economy can thrive, while leaving primarily responsibility of the ‘invisible hand’ to individuals and organisations of civil society—the minimal requirements of laisser-faire conservatives (and the area into which Brooks fears the President’s advisers will trespass). However, acknowledging the claims of organic Tories for limited, temporary State assistance when required to assuage hardship (keeping a wide berth from dirigisme), the Pope argued (repeated for emphasis) that ‘the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis.’

So, David Brooks stands in good stead; he eschews robust ideological purity in favour of a scepticism and an appreciation for policies—the mean—that work, both for individuals and society. Moreover, he’s in good company: as Aristotle remarked, ‘For this reason it is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the mid-point.…’

20 February 2009

Society, Our Natural Route to the Common Good

In the mistaken dichotomy imposed upon the individual and society, modern liberal politics will often assume a choice exists—a core leitmotif—between the autonomous person free from the obligations imposed by society, and the dependent person who is embedded in a myriad interplay of relationships, beginning with the family and expanding to society's wider associations. Were it necessary to characterise these positions, their extreme manifestations may be termed respectively as individualism and communitarianism (with apologies to those who believe their viewpoint slighted or caricatured).

Such a scenario was raised by Sunder Katwala’s ‘Letwin’s curious confusion between his Fabian and neo-con critics (Next Left, 5 February)’, as he addresses an issue touched on by Oliver Letwin at the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project—that ‘being communitarian must be illiberal.’ For Katwala, this is a straw-man debate: the left ‘does not reify liberal individualism to the extent that the Hayekian right does’; rather, the question is if being liberal must be anti-communitarian, since for the right ‘less state equals more freedom’. Of course, this sets the stage for a greater, possibly more antagonistic argument about equating the state with society. Forswearing that parsing of the body politic for another time, I return to the opening gambit, the individual versus society.

The topic is rich and complex, defies easy summary and offers tempting expatiation; suffice instead a few remarks on the natural law quality of society, its necessity for the achievement of individual fulfilment, and the relationship to the common good.

With respect to framing the context of individuals and society, the either-or starkness would be incomprehensible (or, at the very least, highly unorthodox) to thinkers in the formative centuries of Western Civilisation, a world-view that lost its ascendency in the early 1500s with the rise of liberalism in the Enlightenment era. Incomprehensible for earlier epochs where, if you will, to speak of the individual and society was commonplace without the inclination of distinguishing between the two; where, of the two, the atomised individual was a fata morgana. One such metaphysical interpretation of humanity’s part-whole nature has become known as personalism.

Personalism, conceived by mediaeval philosophers and theologians, has as one model the Divine Trinity: the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—three in one—otherwise known as the trinitarian anthropology. Writes J.W. Koterski, ‘Boethius devised what has become the classical definition of “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature” in order to include within a single term divine and angelic as well as human beings.’ Yet personalism also has a political dimension, as Koterski notes in referring to Jacques Maritain:

In reaction to excessive claims in the name of individualism and equal excesses in the service of collectivism, Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good (1947) attempts to make the necessary distinctions between the inalienable rights inherent in every human being as person and the duties intrinsic to membership in civil society.

Aristotle’s Politics hinted at these duties when he wrote that gravid phrase, ‘man is by nature a political animal (i, 2).’ ‘By nature’ means that sociability is inherent in man, teleologically, as required for the satisfaction of his temporal ends; that is why Aristotle spoke of the polis—and care must be taken when identifying the Greek idea of the city-state with the modern nation-state—as the ‘most sovereign and inclusive association (i, 1)’ that ‘may be said to have reached the height of full self-sufficiency; or rather we may say that while it comes into existence for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life. For this reason every city exists by nature, just as did the earlier associations (i, 2).’

This need for sociability—as an aim of our nature, an aim which leads to perfection—is common to all, and is an application of natural law. To be otherwise, for sociability to be an aberration or mere choice, is to be either unnatural or supernatural:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort (i, 2).

For Thomas Aquinas, society is integral ‘since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community (Summa Theologiae, I-II.90.2, c)’. Pius XI, in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, explains the social environment in which a person attains completeness:

God has likewise destined man for civil society according to the dictates of his very nature. In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa. This must not be understood in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual; but only in the sense that by means of an organic union with society and by mutual collaboration the attainment of earthly happiness is placed within the reach of all. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone. But on final analysis, even in this latter function, society is made for man, that he may recognise this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will (§29).

This passage from Pius XI reinforces three political considerations of man as a social animal: (i) ‘mutual collaboration’ is part of his nature; (ii) society is the means whereby ‘imperfect’ man realises his ends; and (iii) even as a member in the social fabric, man remains free, rational, and absolute.

This co-existing dimension is at the heart of Thomistic personalism, of being in society while at the same time being above it:

For in the person there are some things—and they are the most important and sacred ones—which transcend political society and draw man in his entirety above political society—the very same whole man who, by reason of another category of things, is a part of political society. By reason of certain relations to the common life which concern our whole being, we are a part of the state; but by reason of other relations (likewise of interest to our whole being) to things more important than the common life, there are goods and values in us which are neither by nor for the state, which are outside of the state (Maritain, Person & Common Good).

A true understanding of the common good becomes manifest when read by the personalist principle: though most often spoken of in the language of utilitarianism, of the greatest good of the greatest number, the common good is rather more full and comprehensive: it is the good common to all in respect of their nature, a good that benefits them both as persons (as one) and as individuals in society (as community). Peace, for instance, is a good that is enjoyed by one and all; it is not a private good, nor is it a good that does not affect each one personally. ‘Since then every man is a part of the state, it is impossible that a man be good, unless he be well proportionate to the common good,’ wrote Aquinas; ‘nor can the whole be well consistent unless its parts be proportionate to it (ST, I-II.92.1, ad 3).’

An analytical-linguistic response to the individual-society dichotomy has been described as a form of category mistake. Gilbert Ryle popularised the term in his book The Concept of Mind, where his classic example was showing Oxford’s various colleges, chapels, and quads to a visitor who then asks to see the famous university. In like fashion, it is a category mistake to think of a collection of individuals without them naturally forming a society, or of imagining civil society in action without conceiving of the autonomous individuals that comprise it. (Maritain emphasised a similar mistake when referring to an individual as a ‘part in the whole (society)’ and a person as ‘a whole in the whole’: ‘There is not in men one reality, called my individual, and another reality, called my person. One and the same reality is, in a certain sense an individual, and, in another sense, a person (Person & Common Good).’)

Personalism, under its sacred guise, asks us to accept the unfathomable, ineffable mysteries of the Trinity on faith; it is more readily apprehended in our profane political discourse, with its reasoned, natural role for man, not as congeries, but as ordered part and whole. ‘He is a true “microcosm,” as the ancients said, a world in miniature, with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos (Divini Redemptoris, §27).’

Organic Tory Annals: In the upcoming days TOT will be remembering two extraordinary Britons: John Henry Cardinal Newman, theologian and driving spirit of the Oxford Movement, was born in London on 21 February 1801; and Georg Friedrich Händel born in Halle, Saxony on 23 February 1685, whose music was the glory of his adopted homeland.

13 February 2009

Towards a Just Distribution of Wealth

David Cameron’s speech at the World Economic Forum, ‘We need a popular capitalism (30 January)’, has caused quite a stir in certain conservative circles. While arguing against ‘markets without morality’, Mr Cameron stated that ‘We’ve got a lot of capital but not many capitalists, and people rightly think that isn’t fair.’ These remarks—and much else in the speech—caused Daily Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer to retort: ‘After all, those who take the risks and have the superior judgment should have the rewards: anything else is communism (‘David Cameron’s infantile economic policy is no better than socialism’, 3 February).’ What could the leader of the Conservative party have been thinking?

Many themes in Cameron’s Davos speech warrant further examination, especially as they relate to his mantra-like message of several months, ‘progressive ends by conservative means’. For now, though, it is well worth looking at the crux of Heffer’s criticism with respect to conservatism and capitalism.

In broad outline, Cameron revisits ground that had been covered in the great social encyclical on ‘the condition of the working classes’, Rerum Novarum. ‘That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world,’ wrote Leo XIII, ‘should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising (§1).’ To-day, it is the flailing financial sector that casts its shadow upon the sphere of politics. In the late nineteenth century the contending antagonists were an all-encompassing socialism made attractive when ‘working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition (§3).’ These threats from either end of the spectrum were feared for their internal logic that placed humanity in thrall to materialist ends.

For Pope Leo, the false allures of socialism ‘hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy (§4).’ But these supposed remedies would only worsen the situation of those it sought to alleviate; socialist principles were, ‘moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community (ibid.).’ Leo foresaw this would only lead to greater subjugation as man’s essential dignity was reduced to nothing more than a cog in the machinery of industry and a pawn of the State. From this perspective, the pope would have broadly accepted Heffer’s assertion that capitalism ‘is moral because it is about the exercise of free will between buyers and sellers: and few things can be more moral than allowing someone to be free. Capitalism is about the link between effort and reward.’

Far from contesting this connexion between capitalism and liberty, Cameron agrees: ‘Open markets and free enterprise are the best way to increase human wealth, health and happiness. We’re not blind to the system’s flaws but we know that at its best, capitalism extends ownership, spreads opportunity, and works arm in arm with political freedom.’ Rather, his principal adversary is ‘monopolisation, sweeping aside the small, personal, local competition in our neighbourhoods.’ Leo XIII was equally dismissive when ‘the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself (§3).’

Capitalism needed its own checks and balances; contrary to the classical school of liberal economics, it was not a perfectly self-regulating mechanism. There was a legitimate role for the State in overseeing its proper—that is, human-centred—operation:

The foremost duty, therefore, of the rulers of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realise public well-being and private prosperity (Rerum Novarum, §32).

Unlike socialism—with disordered aims and ends—capitalism can be redeemed if rightly regulated, albeit with a light hand:

The State should watch over these societies of citizens banded together in accordance with their rights, but it should not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organisation, for things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without (Rerum Novarum, §55).

One such response—in concert with Cameron’s ‘the small, personal, local’—in habilitating the unfettered market has come to be known as distributism.

Distributism’s goal is that one should be able to earn a wage sufficient to satisfy immediate needs, with enough left over to provide for the future. Instead of this surplus accruing only to the capitalist or only to the State, the proceeds of industry are distributed justly to all who had a hand in its creation. ‘The law, therefore,’ wrote Leo, ‘should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners (§46).’ The latter proviso of desert is a requirement of distributive justice:

something is given to a private individual, in so far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part, and in a quantity that is proportionate to the importance of the position of that part in respect of the whole (Summa Theologiae, II-II.61.2, c).

An added promise of distributism is that, in theory, it promotes localism and community initiative against corporatism’s ever-increasing concentration of capital and resources. ‘It’s time to decentralise economic power,’ said Cameron, ‘to spread opportunity and wealth and ownership more equally through society and that will mean, as some have put it, recapitalising the poor rather than just the banks.’ This focus on civil society as the ‘theatre of action’ is also a concern of subsidiarity—‘the State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammelled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interest of others (Rerum Novarum, §35).’

Still not convinced? The benefits of the distributist model are clearer if contrasted to what happens in the process of proletarianisation, a situation referred to in Leisure, the Basis of Culture as ‘being bound to the working-process’: no living wage, so providing for one’s quotidian needs becomes a constant preoccupation; a burgeoning State with an insatiable economic appetite that renders thrift a luxury; and a life where labour and ‘just getting by’ have overshadowed the transcendent beauty, inter alia, of inter-personal relationships and self-realisation.

If this were not to become the workers’ fate, Josef Pieper wrote, ‘three things would be necessary: building up of property from wages, limiting the power of the state, and overcoming internal poverty.’

The first and second are clear aims of distributism; the third is more central to a philosophy that sees the person not as a means to an end—not a part but a whole, an absolute. It is, to my mind, a most compelling raison d’être for the free economy.

How is the elysian vision to be achieved? As Cameron said, ‘the devil is in the details’ (a commonplace that only heightened Heffer’s ire). Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics may be more rarefied when it asserts that ‘Mere reasoning, however, can never set anything going, but only reasoning about means to an end (6, ii)’. More distinctly still, the motto can be distilled as ‘deliberate, decide, act’. Heffer surmises that for the Conservative leader, this ultimately means that ‘All he wants is for the state to regulate capitalism more or less out of existence’; yet if the principle of State oversight is agreed as a way of redirecting the excesses of capitalism, then the question shifts to its prudent use (and Oliver Letwin’s speech to Policy Exchange, ‘The right kind of regulation (27 January)’, presents a compelling case for more insight into the complexities of the free market against administering mechanical, bureaucrat-satisfying, entrepreneurial-stultifying, rules).

Quite unintentionally, Simon Heffer may have performed some small service for David Cameron’s popular capitalism. By raising the communist spectre, he challenges the movement to sharpen its aims and to distinguish itself from a redistribution without the prerequisite of merit, which is, as we learned from the last American presidential campaign, merely ‘spreading the wealth around’, not proportionally, but equally. Now that is a concept anathema to conservatives.

05 February 2009

The Liberal Conceit of Progressive Conservatism

In an article published yesterday on the New Statesman website, Oliver Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department (UK) asks, ‘How liberal is progressive Conservatism?’ If nothing else, it’s very curious that the British have taken up this nomenclature several years after it was dropped—unceremoniously—in Canada.

Letwin describes progressive conservatism in glowing terms; as a purportedly novel undertaking within conservatism, one may well ask what it is meant to replace within the Tory lexicon? A natural response may be ‘Thatcherism’, but only if a form of 90s centralisation comes to mind, since economic liberalism is very much at the heart of what it is taken to be a progressive conservative. In this respect, then, ‘progressive’ seems to have less to do with conservatism per se than with the current state of British politics—notably, as Letwin remarks, an increasingly authoritarian centre-left—and may account for their motto of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’.

Addressing the ‘allegation that progressive Conservatism is illiberal because it emphasises the community rather than the liberty of the individual’, Letwin sets out to answer the eponymous question of his title in the affirmative. I won’t ruin the reader’s own pleasure in following the threads of the argument based upon recent speeches by party leader, David Cameron, but will provide an alternative viewpoint on the individual-versus-community from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

A primary tenet of CST is that the person, created in the image and likeness of God—imago dei—is free, rational, and absolute. People do not exist in isolation, however, but are, as Aristotle famously said, political and social animals. We begin in families, that join together to form communities, that in turn grow to become the city-state. This ascending pyramid—in form, if not always in intent—is a common conservative starting point: A central Cameron belief is that ‘we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions’.

Thomas Aquinas, building upon these Greek ideas of the state as the culmination of political association, wrote that ‘it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole (Summa Theologiae, II-II.58.5, c).’

Herein lies the apparent contradiction: the absolute person versus the relative individual who is the part in the whole—But only if one ignores the reality of everyday life, where one can be a member of a family, employed in a particular profession, co-operate in affairs of civil society, and still enjoy independent initiatives and actions. This is the essence of the personalist principle.

As Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis Christi,

‘In a natural body the principle of unity unites the parts in such a manner that each lacks in its own individual subsistence... Moreover, if we examine the relations existing between the several members and the whole body, in every physical, living body, all the different members are ultimately destined to the good of the whole alone; while if we look to its ultimate usefulness, every moral association of men is in the end directed to the advancement of all in general and of each single member in particular; for they are persons (§61).’

If the autonomy of the person is still in doubt, the principle of subsidiarity firmly establishes that ‘Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, §79).’

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II further defined subsidiarity: ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (§48).’ These may be considered its negative and positive functions: i) no interference into matters that directly concern individual and local actors, and ii) intervening only in periods of distress (and then only until equilibrium has been restored). As an echo of subsidiarity, Cameron is in no doubt of the responsibility ‘for government to act wherever possible to strengthen the institutions of civic society’.

The organic strength of these principles, personalism and subsidiarity, is that both the person and the community are given free rein to develop and realise their potential collaboratively—without drifting into the extremes, respectively, of libertarianism or statism—for the common good.

This is, ultimately, Letwin’s own conclusion: ‘The answer is that progressive Conservatism does not promote the group over the individual; what it seeks to do, is to balance the liberty of the community and the liberty of the individual.’

Yet I cannot help but wonder, so earnest are the efforts on behalf of this liberal conceit—‘Liberals attach value to both of these kinds of liberty, and the fact that progressive Conservatism does so, places it in the mainstream of liberalism’—what it is that is specifically ‘conservative’ (or Tory) in the progressive Conservative mandate. Or, again, what role in the progressive Conservative programme is assigned to the state (save as a last resort).

CST acknowledges the legitimacy of the state in realising a more equitable society: an achievement of the pivotal document in the nineteen-century capital-labour question, Rerum Novarum. Nor is this untrod territory for traditional conservatism, whether in the practice of Disraeli’s ‘One-Nation Toryism’ or in the support for the fundamentals of the welfare state, such as universal healthcare and education, by Churchill and Macmillan.

Nevertheless, Letwin, Cameron, and their progressive Conservative approach are opening an exciting avenue for modern politics, one which shares many affinities with organic Toryism. While this Tory stance is more amenable to State action than is the norm at present, there is much room for ongoing dialogue about ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ and harmonising the individual and the community.

04 February 2009


Welcome to The Organic Tory blog! As a new feature of my research website, Disraeli-Macdonald Institute, periodically I will post comments on matters political, social, and cultural—often in relation to a newspaper article or event of the day—that touch upon Organic Toryism.

Some days I may write about a book I am reading, or promote some work or activity that deserves special mention and greater awareness. As many already know, I am particularly fond of calling attention to dates in history as a ‘topical’ way of remembering and honouring the past.

All postings will be made in a positive spirit and, even when critical, my object is to enlighten (as far as possible!) and not to be unfair, unkind, or unhelpful.