‘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.…’

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