‘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 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.