Tuesday, February 14, 2017

No Imaginary Evil

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  It is now nothing but your conception of what the public authority ought to be; it is in my view a narrow, out-of-date conception, which does not respond to my needs.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.


  1. "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."

    Agreed! I believe many libertarian philosophers have always know this, but Jouvenel(and you) have fleshed it out further.

    Rothbard refers consistently to "natural law", which has it's foundations in "culture", and Gordon refers to as "convention" in the article "In defense of Non-Aggression".

    I've really appreciated your "Cliff Notes" on the topic, thank you.

    1. Consider the Amish. Very traditional and patriarchal, they are certainly adherents of the NAP as well. I don't believe they'd care much if every federal, state, or local government vanished tomorrow. How much liberty would there be in this wonderful, peaceful culture of no government and no aggression with everyone living in nice nuclear families and attending church?

      I'm not sure if the cultural prescription here is either necessary or sufficient. Perhaps some very different cultures, such as the one described by Robert Heinlein in _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, could work as well or better.

    2. Consider the Amish. Totally and completely living at the mercy of the government of the English. They are given allowances for their peculiar way of life.
      In a larger perspective, a anarcho-capitalist society has no chance against societies organized through a government.
      While Jesus tarries, we are stuck with some form of human government.
      A government that follows their main cultural background is the society with the most liberty within.
      In connection to other societies with governments, it all depends and history gives not comfort.

    3. Brett,

      Another interesting work by Heinlein is Stranger in a Strange Land which deals with slightly similar themes. Check it out if you haven't. Worthwhile read.

      To your points though. Beware of viewing culture as a technology ("cultural prescription"). It is the organic basis of human societies. Schemes of law are ancillary to it.

  2. This is a government expression devoid of God. Secular lawmakers who've told God to get out of the affairs of men, thus making them gods. Odd you review a Frenchman's work when we know what happened to those people when they threw God and His Law out, they lost their heads.

    1. Thomas, I do not recall seeing you around here before.

      I have written often of so much more than what is found in this post. I will also suggest that there is much to learn from a Frenchman, despite the history - just as there is much to learn from any individual thinker and writer.

      Finally...de Jouvenel is not so much of a fan of what came with the French Revolution - why do you assume otherwise?

    2. Hi BM, I've read you for a couple of years at Lew Rockwell.com. I admire your work.

      The reason I assume the Frenchman doesn't really treat the Revolution as seriously as I think he should, is that it ended in 1799. He thinks like everybody else--that happened 218 years ago and won't happen again. But he's from the same country that's transforming into Islams foothold into the West, and those people are attacking with a theology/politic that are one in the same. The only way the French are going to defeat Allah is with Christ. Muslims believe all mosques are also embassies--religion & politic. The French are only going to defeat them with their God. If the French don't reinsert their Catholic Christ into the fray they will be destroyed utterly--by being beheaded.

      This same event is occurring all over the West. In America the elite have brainwashed the serfs into rejecting their God for the State and there is only room for one them. In a battle for godhead bloodshed is inevitable. This time around there are more devices able to kill than in the past. And guys like him I feel don't care enough to bring up the Christian God because he's of the mindset that if Christian morals concerning sex, et.al are re-instituted, then it would be better to just be wiped out than go back, because that would mean the end of 20th Century Enlightenment.

      I get a feeling from him that he's a post-modern thinker, and those people hate, absolutely hate the very thought that God has to have a place in political life in order to curb the base impulses of man.

    3. Thomas, in support of your statements I do not recall de Jouvenel making any pleas specifically for returning to Christian faith and morals.

      However, he regularly and explicitly writes of custom and the old, good law.

      In western Europe, especially, this has a specific meaning: medieval law with Christian faith at its root.

  3. Mr. Mosquito,

    Once more, my companion, thank you.

  4. Limited government is not a fallacy when it's biblical.

    Had Moses come down Mt. Sinai with today's Constitutional Republic's laws (all of which are now part of the supreme law of the land, per Article 6), he wouldn't have come down the Mountain with two tablets but with a hernia, a broken back, and an untold number of wagons pulled by both donkeys and elephants alike. And some Christians have the audacity to claim Yahweh's law of being burdensome, despite the Apostle John's declaration to the contrary:

    "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)

    "...A senate further enslaves the people to a gargantuan federal government, which must be paid for with tax dollars. Constitutionalists, Libertarians, and even Republicans are often heard discussing the idea that limited government was an objective of the framers. It is true that government was much more limited in the late 1700s than it is today. But do not believe for a minute that the Constitution provided us with limited government, even in the late 1700s. A government consisting of a president, vice president, House of Representatives, Senate, and judiciary can hardly be described as limited. When the framers threw away America’s Christian theocracy in exchange for the United States’ secular theocracy, they also cast aside limited government.

    "With some rare exceptions, Yahweh’s government consists of only one King and Legislator – Yahweh – and a judiciary to litigate His commandments and statutes and enforce His judgments. That is limited government. Yahweh’s government has no need for a president and his cabinet, no need for the House of Representatives or the Senate and their glutted bureaucracy, no need for a prison complex, no need for a parasitical welfare system, no need for the Federal Reserve, no need for the Internal Revenue Service, and no need for a tax-subsidized standing army. Constitutionalists want to abolish nearly everything enumerated here, but they would have us “return” to the very document that permitted these excesses and robbed us of a truly limited government...."

    For more, see online Chapter 4 "Article 1: Legislative Usurpation" of "Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective" at http://www.bibleversusconstitution.org/BlvcOnline/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt4.html.

    1. And the king part was optional but the option was given the Elders of Israel in Deuteronomy 17:14-18 and choose they did, badly, for wrong reason, later, in 1 Samuel 8-9.

  5. "Loss of cultural " Thats it isn't it?...........Boy Scouts are prime
    example are they not?

    Thanks so much for this Book!!


    Owyhee Cowboy

  6. One religion, war:


  7. From one of the quotes you offered my dude,

    "His actions are governed by his feelings and beliefs which dictate to him his behavior and inspire his impulses."

    Can I get a page number on that? We probably have the same Liberty Fund Copy.

    Anyways, this is really starting to hit on the money. Men of similar backgrounds may be given to different worldviews (interpretations of the facts) but they are often more closely grouped on similarities we don't typically see as political.

    A motto I have had in dealing with ideology for a some time has been "other things first." What I mean by that is: whatever people give as their reason for believing something, it always falls short and is better explained by something beneath the surface. This may seem cynical but its not about deception of the other as much as its about a lack of awareness of the self. We are all subject to this but some people have more awareness than others. I have come to believe that my real disagreement with (some) libertarians has more to do with basic differences than with the complex manifestations. The difference is in the roots not the branches.

    The above quote hits on such a basic difference, which Jouvenal appears to understand and many post-modernist libertarians will drag their feet on til the end of their world. It is this: we do not come into this world as fully formed human beings with perfect autonomous reason. What we are is part of the long golden thread of our people. We are not separate and "free" from the obligations that come with this. We are not "free" of history and its cycles. We are not even "free" with regards to our tastes and preferences.

    Liberalism starts from the premise of the acting individual and his interests, but it takes for granted that such being exists and refuses to admit any understanding of that being that is not economic. It is a soul-less materialistic ideology that denies a higher existence to man through his relationship to his people and his history. The areas where liberalism fractures intellectually points us to the path of the ancients. The path denied to us in the modern world. Community, tradition, aesthetics, and the soul should make up the life of (civilized) man, and once they did.

    When a culture has been distorted and retarded by outside forces (cultural marxism is the worst culprit, see Culture of Critique) or internal decay (see Spengler) it loses a sense of itself. With no sense of self you cannot think in historical terms. You have no future and you have no past. The final death of a culture is total, and history is littered with such stories of peoples who vanished from the world stage with only a few artifacts to testify to their existence.

    Libertarians who ignore these facts do so at their own peril. They are arrogant and arrogance is the hubris of Western Man.

    1. It is page 407; yes, we have the same copy.

      "...we do not come into this world as fully formed human beings with perfect autonomous reason. What we are is part of the long golden thread of our people. We are not separate and "free" from the obligations that come with this. We are not "free" of history and its cycles. We are not even "free" with regards to our tastes and preferences."


    2. Unhappy C -

      You would agree that Donald Trump, a serial prevaricator, a carnival barking, military worshipping, serial adulterer, contract breaker par excellence, eminent domain loving, crony-capitalist narcissist is not the savior of what you perceive as your culture?