There is little dispute among conservatives that government is limited in its authority and ought to act accordingly. In the April issue of First Things, Robert P. George presents a philosophical foundation for this view, offering what he describes as “a fundamental argument for limited government.”
George argues that the reach of governmental authority is constrained by nature, because “the common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good.” According to George, the polis offers us nothing that is valuable in itself, but merely assists us in the attainment of other goods that are intrinsically worthwhile. It is this fact of political society’s merely instrumental nature that he believes “entails moral limits on justified governmental power.”
I have great appreciation for George and his work, but I worry that this case against totalitarianism grants far too much ground to the egoists with whom George has done battle elsewhere.
When political community is reduced to the status of an instrumental good, the anti-authoritarian spirit of the Enlightenment gains a powerful foothold in the popular imagination. When the community’s common good is taken to be merely, as George puts it, a “set of conditions” for the undisturbed attainment of individual goods, the social-contract perversion of philosophical anthropology is all but cemented: We no longer understand political authority as natural, necessary, and proper to man, but instead view it as a contractually created restraint on our individual autonomy.
This Lockean break with the Aristotelian tradition of political philosophy is incorrect, since political society turns out to be intrinsically good for man. But thankfully for conservatism, it is also unnecessary for the success of George’s larger project of justifying political limitations, since even an inherently valuable polis would be a limited polis. I’d like to propose an alternative “fundamental argument for limited government,” one sensitive to the truly communal nature of the common good.
At the outset, trying to show the intrinsic goodness of political community presents something of a procedural problem. For by definition, an intrinsic good gives no further reasons for its goodness beyond itself. In that sense, the buck stops here. Human nature inclines us toward what is intrinsically good, so we don’t await syllogisms to want what is good for us.
At the same time, rational analysis about the nature of the good is the essence of human nature at work. In this vein, I hope to show that political excellence is one of human nature’s component virtues, and that the value of government is not exhausted by the leg up it gives to its citizens’ attainment of their own individual goods.
George suggests that government supplants our autonomy by “[doing] things for people[ ]as opposed to letting them do things for themselves.” Echoing Chapter VIII of Locke’s Second Treatise, George imagines a state enacted over the citizenry in order to secure rights or capacities they antecedently possess.
The polis of the Politics denies this division, marrying the virtues necessary for good government to the act of government itself. Aristotle instructs that citizens should “rule and be ruled in turn,” cleaving citizen to civic leadership.
George dismisses this model of self-rule as fanciful, which makes sense of his anxiety about growing state power imposed on us from the outside. But he can divorce rulers from the people only by acquiescing in the nationalization and professionalization of politics that characterizes the modern era.
Far removed from these contemporary peculiarities, Aristotle teaches that government is fundamentally an activity—an action rather than an institution—that the people pursue together on the local level. And as Tocqueville notes, it is a ubiquitous action performed naturally and spontaneously: “The township ... is the grouping so close to man's nature that wherever men gather together township automatically comes into being.”
This picture is dramatically different from the one offered by George: In the classical view government isn’t a structure set up after the fact to help citizens pursue other intrinsically valuable activities, but is itself one of the many intrinsically valuable activities that people engage in.
Understanding the unique contribution of political community to human flourishing requires rethinking the nature of the common good. For George, the common good of the political community is merely the proper setting of the stage for its constituent members to attain individual goods. But in reality, the common good is common in a far more robust sense. As the great Thomist Charles de Koninck put it in his watershed essay “On the Primacy of the Common Good,” “the common good is essentially one which is able to be participated in by many.”
In this Aristotelian-Thomistic account, the common good is not simply the accidental coordination of my own singular good with those of my neighbors, but is rather the one good of us all, shared in common by the entire community.
This common good described by de Koninck is not, to predict an objection, the good of the whole abstracted from the good of the individual citizens that comprise it, as that would likewise reduce it to the status of being common only accidentally.
He writes, “The common good does not formally look to the society insofar as the latter is an accidental whole; it is the good of the substantial wholes which are the members of the society. But”—and here is the relevant sticking point—“it is the good of these substantial wholes only insofar as the latter are members of society.” So the common good is indeed the good of the parts, but it is the good of these parts precisely insofar as they are parts, constituent members of the whole, rather than atomistic individuals amputated from the community to which they belong.
Perhaps this reorientation toward political society can shed some light on its intrinsic value, on the unique goodness it contributes that proves essential to human flourishing.
Certainly without political community, human beings would miss out on many of the individual benefits made possible by belonging to it.
But these extrinsic profits do not give society its intrinsic value. At the most basic level, the good the polis offers to man is simply itself: the opportunity to belong to and participate in political community. It is true that this good cannot be appreciated as necessary to human flourishing if one considers man merely as an individual. But man is not merely an individual; he is social by his very nature.
An essential perfection of that social nature is political virtue. For to an even greater degree than marriage and particular friendships, political citizenship invites man to achieve beatitude, to step outside himself and to subordinate his own desires to the good of the communion to which he belongs.
George worries that this admission of the intrinsic goodness of political society will undercut the conservative project of defending limited government, ushering in instead a totalitarian state whose reach is expansive and which crowds out individual happiness for the sake of the alleged well-being of the collective.
This concern is unfounded. It is true that government will always be essentially necessary for human flourishing in an Aristotelian account, since politics is itself an integral feature of such flourishing, whereas it is necessary only accidentally in the Lockean vision, required only because the world is such that the things that really matter are dependent upon government’s continued existence. But essentiality does not entail omnipotence.
Even for Aristotle, government is not man’s final end, and thus there are limits inherent to its rightful operation. Ergo Aquinas: “Man is not ordered to political society according to all of himself and all of that which is his.” This is not to deny man’s orientation to the polis, of course—quite the contrary. But while the Aristotelian tradition teaches that man is essentially a citizen, it also, with a nod to hierarchy and subsidiarity, notes that his civic hat is but one of many that he wears—or better, that it is but one of many identities that he bears.
Therefore, our theoretical justification for the natural limitations on governmental authority should not be based on the accidental importance of political community, as in George’s system. Instead, we should defend limited government using the relation of political society to other goods that are also intrinsically valuable.
No natural good is comprehensive to the point of excluding all others. Friendship is limited; health is limited; marriage is limited too, despite being a one-flesh union and thus comprehensive in a certain narrow respect. Yet marriage is limited not because it is a merely instrumental good, but rather because it is one of many intrinsic goods, a particular non-exhaustive facet of human wellbeing. The same is true of civics.
It is an odd totalitarian mistake to forget that man is more than his citizen status, but it is not a mistake of the Aristotelian tradition. As de Koninck writes, “Though man, the individual, the family member, the civil citizen, the celestial citizen, etc., are the same subject, they are different formally. Totalitarianism [wrongly] identifies the formality ‘man’ with the formality ‘citizen.’” Aristotle, to the contrary, respected the limited nature of even intrinsically good objects of the human will, including government. All of these natural goods contribute to man’s wellbeing, but none realizes it alone.
To see political community as intrinsically good offers a more stable foundation for limited government than to reduce political community to a merely instrumental good. By demarcating government as one of many intrinsic goods in the created order, we can see where political community ends and other goods pick up. This picture gives politics naturally defined bounds. Government gets a realm of its own, and that realm is an inherently limited one.
Political community understood merely as an instrument to realizing individual goods, however, opens the doors to state encroachment wherever the government believes it can lend a hand. And as recent history shows all too clearly, the state tends to think it can assist with just about everything; even our government of clearly defined bounds oversteps them at every turn. When government is denied its own realm of importance as an intrinsic good, it overtakes whatever territory it can claim for itself.
De Koninck is further vindicated: “By their false notion of the common good, the personalists”—those who would subordinate the common good of the political community to the singular good of its individual members—“are fundamentally in accord with those whose errors they suppose they are fighting.” Despite George’s hope that denying the intrinsic goodness of governance will curtail its expansion, in practice the instrumentalization of the state has extended its reach drastically.
These practical consequences should hardly surprise us. After all, the same theoretical foundation that George holds up as the basis for constraining government has been held by so heinous an enemy of political limitations as Thomas Hobbes. Even his throbbing Leviathan is understood as merely instrumentally valuable, good simply because of its ability to safeguard men by keeping them from killing each other in the “war of all against all.”
We should look elsewhere than Hobbes for a sure foundation of limited government. My contention is that we need look no further than the thinker who pronounced man a political animal in the first place.
Michael W. Hannon is a first-year law student at NYU and a graduate of Columbia, where he triple-majored in Philosophy, Religion, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is a contributing editor at Ethika Politika.