A casual observer might be excused for believing that conservatives have a rather confused and conflicted view of the state. Albert J. Nock, a giant of early-twentieth-century conservatism, wrote a book titled Our Enemy the State. Yet Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, observed that “he who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state.” For one, the state is a creature of evil, for the other it is ordained by God. Is this a sign of deep disagreement, hopeless confusion, or perhaps both?
Perhaps, to some extent, both. Nock was a libertarian who described himself as a philosophical anarchist. He was a trenchant critic of the social democratic policies of the Franklin Roosevelt administration and a vigorous defender of liberty. Burke, on the other hand, was an Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman of the eighteenth century who spent his career defending the mixed constitution of Great Britain against corruptions and lust for power from all directions. Finding coherence in vastly differing circumstances can be challenging, even when the attitude and philosophical grounding is consistent. And in this case the consistency, while it exists, is limited.
First, to circumstances. Burke is best known for his defense of traditional society against the radical, atheistic and anti-historical individualism of the French Revolution. He defended order in the face of the zealots of anarchy. Nock faced vastly different circumstances in the rise of socialism. Like many on the American right, Nock came to see the state that Roosevelt built as the source of most, if not all, danger to human flourishing. Burke was considered “liberal” at certain points in his career when combating corruption and attempts by both King and Parliament to centralize power in their own hands, but he also faced the radically different circumstance of Jacobinism. One’s arguments differ, from necessity, when facing attacks from different quarters.
This is not to say that Nock and Burke were philosophical brothers-in-arms. The libertarian and the traditional conservative are, rather, uneasy cousins. Where Burke fought to defend the human person in the social associations that rendered his life full and his character virtuous, Nock focused intently on the individual as rightful master of his own existence. There is much to admire and sympathize with in this latter position, particularly when put forward in opposition to social democracy, but it is hardly a full, nuanced defense of the person as a fundamentally social being. And that conception of the person as fully himself only in society is at the heart of conservatism. It is the recognition of our social nature, and of the necessity of defending the fundamental associations of any decent society against those who would use the state to transform them in the name of some abstract principle of justice or fairness, that gives conservatism its goal and motive force.
Still, there is common ground between the associational perspective of Burke and the individualism of Nock, particularly in their opposition to centralized political power. In Burkean terms, the machinery of government may disrupt, distort, and even destroy the organic and spiritual ties that bind societies together and allow persons to lead virtuous lives. Here the most powerful source of confusion between traditionalism and nascent libertarianism lies in our definition of “the state.” For, where Nock saw the state in specifically governmental or administrative terms, Burke looked at it from an earlier perspective, still imbued with the wisdom of natural law. Where Nock saw the state as the apparatus of administration, relying on threats of force to make people get in line with centralized plans, Burke saw civil society itself.
The state, for Nock, is literally the government—that modern, post-French Revolutionary creature of statute and political discretion backed by force that increasingly has regimented our existence. Burke’s state is the more permanent structure of society, broadly captured by the medieval conception of “the constitution of the realm.” This earlier, more natural society rests less on governmental directives of any kind than on the power of custom and tradition. King, lords, commons, and Church, the most formalized elements of the constitution of the realm, all were limited in their ability and right to act by the customary law of the land and the recognized overall purpose of society itself. That purpose was to serve God through virtuous lives rooted in everyday decency and the flourishing of fundamental associations of family, church, and local association.
An ideological commitment to anarchy would of course be hostile to ordered liberty and the peace that social institutions require to exist. That said, opposition to the administrative state, despite the claims of many administrators, is not inimical to civilized life. The Burkean state is necessary for the perfection of the human person in the Burkean sense; we need society in order to become fully human. But the state we need is not the state that Franklin Roosevelt built, Lyndon Johnson exponentially expanded, and Barack Obama has sought to complete.
The confused political debates of the day further confuse our understanding of the state. Too many establishment Republicans take the necessity of order to mean that we must make peace with the apparatus of oppression. They would have us believe that the current form of centralized administrative state is inevitable and that the most we can do is tame its more brutal aspects while taking advantage of its apparent (though in fact quite limited) capacity to provide security. Too many libertarians take the dangers of centralized power to mean that all power rooted in anything other than individual consent is by nature illegitimate. Many libertarians seem genuinely to believe that all forms of politics are parasitic and that only markets (themselves dependent on background rules and governmental enforcement) can provide legitimate means of public interaction.
The state, in the Burkean sense, is natural, meaning that it is necessary for any decent life and is self-generating unless prevented. Moreover, the local associations necessary for ordered liberty include local governments. Today these local governments alternate between radical politics and mere administration of policies handed down from the center. By nature, however, when allowed to operate as they should, local governments are extensions of fundamental associations, by which these associations govern and mediate among themselves. It is only when the structures of government reach a more distant, centralized stage in the state and national governments that local governments’ essential character is changed and they become sources of generalized rules that may regiment our lives at the expense of our natural order. Local governments may oppress, and may need to be corrected and even reformed under extreme circumstances, but their role in public life is natural.
The nation-state as it has developed into the centralized welfare/warfare state is a creature of force and will, sometimes guided by reason and wisdom, sometimes not. It is not natural and should be treated as what it is—a dangerous though at times necessary human construct that must be contained through constitutional rules and socially-embedded public virtues. But we should not let this fact distract us from the essential character of social and even public life as a realm of interaction among persons and associations, necessary for any decent life.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 6, 2016 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.