On Power: The Natural History of its GrowthBertrand de Jouvenel
The Fallacy of Limited Government
De Jouvenel concludes his examination on Power with a look at the liberal case for limited government. He holds an imaginary conversation with his liberal counterpart, Émile Faguet:
The state, you tell us, has a normal sphere of competence. Agreed. But how do you define it?
To assure internal order and external security.
What has determined it?
The nature of society which is formed for the defense of all against aggression from without and of each man against assault by his neighbor.
But at this point I pull you up. Who compels me to subscribe to your conception of society?
At which point de Jouvenel describes the different viewpoints of the different members of this society – where for each, the interpretation and application of this “normal sphere of competence” means significantly different things.
Then what becomes of your “normal sphere”? It is now nothing but your conception of what the public authority ought to be; it is in my view a narrow, out-of-date conception, which does not respond to my needs. I oppose to it my conception.
To the call of “external security,” de Jouvenel points out that the neighboring states have commanded all resources within their state toward the military; it seems, then, that Power should also control all resources here as well.
Power has never regarded as forbidden territory the domains of social and economic interests.
No, it hasn’t.
Government of Laws vs. Government of Men
De Jouvenel describes a government of laws in three steps, one building on the other:
The material world is governed by laws, to which we, as physical beings, are necessarily subject.
He offers the example of gravity.
He builds on this with his definition of the “natural laws of society.” For example, nomadic shepherds whose pastures are ruined by drought must move, or else they will die. This is not a mechanical law, as it is with gravity; de Jouvenel describes these laws as “vital” laws.
Neither of the above types can be ignored or violated without consequence.
Finally, the moral law which can be violated and the civil law which can be transgressed.
The moral law prescribes what is good absolutely, the civil law what is useful to society.
(I find the inclusion of “civil law” as described here a bit problematic. “Useful to society” is like the General Welfare Clause; it sounds equally dangerous. Given my overall understanding of de Jouvenel’s work, I am will to consider that I am not understanding this point clearly.)
We see, then, that government by the laws is, in essence, that in which those rules are sanctioned which are of useful effect to men dedicated to the good….
For de Jouvenel, and on this I agree, “men dedicated to the good” would be the natural aristocracy of old. Today’s aristocrats – today’s “nobles” – are nothing more than puppets of the Power that props them up in order to ensure willing compliance from these artificial leaders.
The conclusion is, then, that government by the laws, undiluted, is in its perfection unrealizable, but remains ever the model and the touchstone, the myth and the inspiration. The cause of social order and human dignity is best served when this ideal is made the goal.
You can’t hit the target unless you are aiming for it.
And what of government of men? For this, de Jouvenel introduces the term “counterfeit laws,” for they take the form of law but in fact are only responses to current passions.
Principle and certitude are things of the past; the desires of the moment become “your only lawgiver….”
In such a state, man loses all certainty. In such a state, social remedy is sought by all who believe they are not receiving their fair share. New counterfeit laws, evermore hastily put in place, only add to the feelings of injustice – demanding evermore new counterfeit laws. Decisions are arbitrary, “a despotism such as the West has never known before.” And from this…
…the demand for order, with which we began, ends in letting loose disorder on a gigantic scale.
And herein we see the danger in our time.
From Where Come Concepts of Right Conduct?
Egoism, answers the school of Hobbes and Helvétius; concern for his own self-interest!
This is not sufficient for de Jouvenel as explanation for the regulation of society; nor is the economic argument – as the entire problem does not lie in the field of economics, in the field of transactions and property.
Instead, de Jouvenel offers:
His actions are governed by his feelings and beliefs which dictate to him his behaviour and inspire his impulses.
These are learned in childhood, through parents and teachers, a “social heredity” more powerful than any physical heredity.
All that is around us whispers to us our duty; we have but to copy and repeat.
Out will come the puritans, those who believe the NAP is sufficient to order a society without appeals to Power. With apologies, I can only offer: the NAP is not enough.
These potent concepts are the guides to our behaviour; it is they which make it calculable to our fellows and compatible with their behaviours. It is they which maintain social harmony.
A generally accepted common culture, and a culture of a certain type (in shorthand: traditional, patriarchal). If there is ever to be any hope for less government (as the term is understood today), it will be found in such societies. Because it will be found in such societies, government works continuously to destroy this common culture.
Everyone living in the West is witness to the active steps taken by Power to destroy this traditional culture, this foundation of Western Civilization. It is not done for any reason other than to demand more from Power.
This is my last post on this book; it has been a most worthwhile journey for me.