What have we forgotten?

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts completely

So goes the saying. When I think of “absolute power,” I think of kings of the medieval ages, or of infamous dictators who made explosive speeches in front of thousands. When I think of absolute power, my modern mind tries to grasp the concept of being stripped of my freedoms completely, and see it in the most physical (and terrifying) way possible, in the cruel punishment of physical bondage.

But evil is more slippery than that. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like the best superhero movies, the villain is not always so obvious; he is a mix of both good and evil, a hybrid of our worst nightmares and greatest desires. But ultimately evil.

In his ground-breaking book, Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen points to the all-reaching tentacles of Leviathan, that great, all-seeing state figure with absolute power, to the Liberal State. What is the “liberal state”? It is the state that has the protection of the right of individuals as its highest ideal, and thereby justifies any and all means necessary to enforce this. This is all really good. We all have rights, we should be able to do whatever it is that we want to do, right?

You can. But there’s a catch.

If people were to do whatever it is that they wanted, we can assume that a portion of these citizenry will not be complying with the law. The executive branch therefore, has to entrench itself in society in order to root out those that are not complying with the law. Lets put this in a tangible example.

Suppose John is a very kindly man who likes to wear a really really tall hat. He wears it everywhere, while at work, while going out and even at home. He really likes his hat. Everywhere he goes, doors are tall enough that allow him to enter without tipping his hat. Now suppose John goes one sunny day into a coffeeshop and -gasp!- his hat gets tipped! John is furious with the coffeeshop owner. He feels extremely embarrassed and goes to court with the case that the coffeeshop owner should have taller doors to allow him to enter without tipping his hat off.  The judges agrees with John’s request, and orders all doors in the state to be tall enough to allow John to enter without it tipping his hat. John is now very happy, but the store owner had to pay a steep price to accommodate the height of John’s hat, which never again graced that coffeeshop.

Now this might seem like a silly example, and it is, except that similar circumstances have indeed happened in the last few years like this -where the individual appeals to the large federal state in order protect his/her individual liberty. If you multiply this many times over, across a large population, the government will have to become extremely massive just so that it can enforce all the little rules and regulations and rights that its citizenry is asking for. As Professor Deneen writes:

“The result is the systemic rolling blackout in electoral politics, governance, and economics, the loss of confidence and even belief in legitimacy among the citizenry, that accumulate not as separable and discrete problems to be solved within the liberal frame but as interconnected crises of legitimacy and a portent of liberalism’s end times.”

In order to protect all the rampant “rights” of its citizens, the government ends up betraying them. This lends the government enormous, totalitarian power. The great insight of Professor Deneen was therefore in realizing that, “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.” Whenever a philosophy goes against the natural inclinations of a society, the more suspicious we should be of it. A community seeks unity through friendships and the mingling of bloodlines. An absolutist state seeks the same through the dissemination of propaganda and “re-training classes”. A community will engage in warfare for political or economic reasons. An absolutist state will engage in it as a matter of ideological principle.

We must not be lured by ideology which promises everlasting peace and prosperity for all. We must not fall prey to those who say, “the government will take care of it!”, or, “the only way of achieving this is by socializing it!” (that is, through the imposition of high taxes and re-distribution at the state level). People who say such things are not being mindful of the millions of souls who paid the ultimate price because, they too, wanted to see a world of goodness but donned that responsibility to the state instead of their own selves.

To close, it might be well to finish with Tocqueville, who described the American people as a society who, “do more to honor their philosophy than to themselves.” Indeed, let’s think about how we can become better as individuals before trying to make everyone as a group, better.


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