Accountability and Paternalism, Imbalance of Power and Civil Friendship

Roger Scruton embodies much of what is most noble in the classical liberal tradition. I find much to agree with in a recent essay of his on the nature of government. I agree with his main thesis that government is an honest good, rather than a merely useful good, as much of the liberal tradition would hold. I also find much of value in the account of political freedom on which he bases his argument, but I think it incomplete and partly wrong.

Scruton rejects most of the atomism and voluntarism of most liberal accounts of freedom. True freedom, he argues, is developed through community:

We are free by nature because we can become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world.

So far I agree with Scruton. I have argued that to be free is to be ruled by reason, to be virtuous. Practically this means that one must be formed in virtue by a community and its laws. Virtue enables one to recognize the true goods to which our nature is inclined, and their order toward the final end, and to act in accordance with that order with habitual ease. From this I argued that government is just when it is what Kant would call a “paternal government” (väterliche Regierung), that is a government in which the rulers intend the common good of their subjects. The rulers and the laws they enact in a just government, I argued, have legitimacy from the common good.

But Scruton (like Kant) does not take this “paternalistic” route. Scuton’s account of freedom is based not on the good (at least, not immediately), but on what he calls “accountability:”

When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a “calling to account,” and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable.

He then gives examples from tyrannical governments and from ordinary life of the lack of such accountability, and concludes:

Such people are locked into the game of domination. If they are building a relationship, it is not a free relationship. A free relationship is one that grants rights and duties to either party, and which raises their conduct to the higher level in which mere power gives way to a true mutuality of interests.

Note the expression, “true mutuality of interests,” if one understands this to mean the common good, then Scruton too bases freedom (mediately) on the good. This would be different from the negative notion of freedom that one finds in Kant:

everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty of others in striving after a similar end for themselves when their Liberty is capable of consisting with the Right of Liberty in all others according to possible universal laws.

If persons in a free relation can call each other to account with a view toward a common good, then such a negative view of freedom is inadequate. But perhaps Scruton means only that they can call each other to account for infringing on each other’s liberty. In fact, Scruton invites such a reading by appealing to the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative.

In any case, Scruton draws a typically liberal conclusion with respect to political legitimacy: “in the last analysis, the authority of the leader derives from the people’s consent to be led by him.” Here of course I disagree with Scruton. Nevertheless, I do think that he is right to think that accountability, and even consent, have a rôle in political life. Elliot Milco recently posted some notes toward a Thomistic account of sovereignty that are helpful here:

The legitimacy of a sovereign depends on two parallel realities: fundamentally, on the extent to which the sovereign acts to promote the common good; practically, on the extent to which manners conform the idea of “legitimacy” to the actuality of the sovereign.

The primary intrinsic common good of political community is the unity of peace.  But political peace partly depends on the “manners” and customs of the people inclining them to recognize the rulers as legitimate, and it partly consists in a relation between them that involves some sort of accountability. (Thus the “parallel” realities of which Milco speaks seem actually to converge).

To say that the primary political common good is peace, is indeed to affirm the sort of civil friendship that Scruton describes; it is to say that the best good in temporal life is largely a result of such friendship. As Aristotle wrote at the beginning of Book VIII of the Ethics:

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy.

The common good, to which law is ordered, is is in a real sense a virtuous community of friends, as Matthew Peterson, of the Charles De Koninck Project, recently put it:

One way of describing the goal of government, for Aristotle and the like, is that it ought to transform citizens into self-governing persons who to a large degree do not need law and who are all friends of their own accord. Self-governing persons in that their virtue flows forth from them – their will and habit guides them internally in place of external laws, laws which are ultimately in existence for the sake of encouraging precisely this sort of internal habit. Laws which also encourage citizens to treat each other as friends – also by means of their own will and habit. The purpose of law, obviously never to be perfectly reached, is thus to create a body of self-governing friends who in some sense do not need law.

What kind of friendship is the civil friendship described here? Aristotle teaches that there are two kinds of friendship: friendship between equals, and friendship between unequals. Friendship between equals is the great theme of Homer’s Iliad: Achilles and Patroclus. Friendship between unequals is the theme of the Odyssey: the friendship between Odysseus and his wife, his son, and his swineherd. Now, I claim that both kinds of friendship are necessary in a well ordered community. Note that Aristotle begins his Politics with the second kind of friendship: the relation of husband and wife, father and son, master and slave.

Liberal political philosophy is very sensitive to the problem of imbalance of power in human relations–how can there be a true “calling to account” between two when one has much more power?  Liberalisms solution is to divide power, bringing it into a balance ordered to the preservation of rights. But this solution is counter-productive because it tends to destroy civic friendship. Rights in a balance of power system become not something that preserves friendship, but rather procedural-contractual claims that obviate the need for friendship. Hence one gets liberal theories of rights so well refuted by Ron McArthur. It is to Scruton’s credit that he preserves the true notion of rights. (Unlike a certain soi disant Thomist who has recently proposed a neo-Lockean theory, but in agreement with Elliot Milco who has recently given a truly Thomistic account of rights). But Scruton doesn’t seem to see that his liberal politics undermines his understanding of rights.

Patick Deneen in his recent Case for Serfdom writes, “Serfdom, to be accurate, is an arrangement whereby you owe specific duties to a specific person, a lord—and in turn, that lord owes you specific duties as well.” Deneen contrasts this with the bureaucratic atomism that has been the actual result of liberal politics. But then Deneen draws a similar conclusion to Scruton:

What distinguishes Conservatism is not that it believes merely in liberty—understood as autonomy—but that it has always understood that liberty is the necessary but not sufficient condition for living a human life in families, communities, religious institutions, and a whole range of relationships that encourage us to practice the arts of self-governance.

“The arts of self-governance:” there’s that idea again. I don’t deny that self-governance, and the governance of others is an essential element of the political common good. Michael W. Hannon has argued that in fact the political common good consists primarily in the practice of ruling. In a previous post I argued that this is not quite right, but that the practice of political rule is  an element of the common good. The primary intrinsic common good of political community is the unity of peace. This peace is partially caused by a “network” of civil friendships, both friendships between equals, and those between unequals. The later involve rule, governance, and so this too is a partial cause of the common good.

The issue of First Things in which Scruton published his essay on government also contains some reflections on the principle of subsidiarity by Rusty Reno. Reno makes some points very similar to those of Deneen and Hannon. He writes:

Aristotle thought only free Athenian males were up to the task of using their reason to exercise communal responsibility. The principle of subsidiarity takes a more optimistic and democratic view. It does so not by making everyone into a politician, something progressives tacitly seek when championing participatory democracy, a view that presupposes that the affairs of the state are the only or at least the primary form of governance. Instead, the principle of subsidiarity focuses on the many layers of communal life that require our free, responsible participation. The family provides the most obvious example. Decisions need to be made about where to live, what job to take, how much money to spend. Children must be raised, and raising them well means exercising parental authority in responsible ways. The same goes for coaching a Little League team, running the parish festival, or sustaining the local Rotary Club. All the institutions and organizations that fill the space between our mere individual existence and the supreme political authority of the modern nation-state require us to exercise our political natures, not in the narrow sense of running for office or voting, but in the broad sense of taking responsibility for a living social organism […] We’re made to exercise dominion.

Ah, dominion. That is indeed a good thing. But is it the only perfection involved in such relations? In a friendship between unequals there is a perfection proper to the superior, but there is there no perfection proper to the inferior? Liberalism wants to deny this; it wants to reduce all governance to a form of “self governance.” Hence Kant emphatically rejects the ideal of paternal government:

No one has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the well-being of other men […] A Government founded upon the principle of Benevolence towards the people—after the analogy of a father to his children, and therefore called a paternal Government—would be one in which the Subjects would be regarded as children or minors unable to distinguish what is beneficial or injurious to them. These subjects would be thus compelled to act in a merely passive way; and they would be trained to expect solely from the Judgment of the Sovereign and just as he might will it, merely out of his goodness, all that ought to make them happy. Such a Government would be the greatest conceivable Despotism; for it would present a Constitution that would abolish all Liberty in the Subjects and leave them no Rights. It is not a paternal Government, but only a patriotic Government that is adapted for men who are capable of Rights, and at the same time fitted to give scope to the good-will of the ruler.

Can a Christian accept Kant’s position on this? St. Pius X in Notre Charge Apostolique condemns the Kantian position as held by the Sillon:

[The Sillon holds that] the Future City in the formation of which it is engaged will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings. A command, a precept would be viewed as an attack upon their freedom; subordination to any form of superiority would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace. Is it in this manner, Venerable Brethren, that the traditional doctrine of the Church represents social relations, even in the most perfect society? Has not every community of people, dependent and unequal by nature, need of an authority to direct their activity towards the common good and to enforce its laws? […] Further, – unless one greatly deceives oneself in the conception of liberty – can it be said with an atom of reason that authority and liberty are incompatible? Can one teach that obedience is contrary to human dignity and that the ideal would be to replace it by “accepted authority”? Did not St. Paul the Apostle foresee human society in all its possible stages of development when he bade the faithful to be subject to every authority? Does obedience to men as the legitimate representatives of God, that is to say in the final analysis, obedience to God, degrade Man and reduce him to a level unworthy of himself? Is the religious life which is based on obedience, contrary to the ideal of human nature?

This goes to the very heart of the difference between Christianity and liberalism. The Christian ideal of the creature is shown in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. The political common good is a participation in the common good of creation, and should prepare us for the coming fulfillment of that good. Political peace is made great and beautiful not only by the just dominion of rulers, but also by the humble submission and obedience of subjects.


11 thoughts on “Accountability and Paternalism, Imbalance of Power and Civil Friendship

  1. “Note that Aristotle begins his politics with the second kind with which Aristotle begins his Politics.” Excellent and intriguing essay. I need to read it again before any substantial comment, but I noticed this typo. Do you mean he begins his politics with the second kind of friendship? I.e. unequal friendship?

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  6. Your analysis begins with a necessary consequence of assuming a Christian perspective on political affairs. Its impossible requirement of universal love leads you to frane polities as rooted in that same universal love, , but this distorts Aristotle’s foundational premise that government’s role is justice, as you distort Aristotle’s quotation from the Ethics. “If all men were friends, there would be no need of justice.” You cannot befriend a stranger, nor can you love all strangers in a state. Rights theory governs those affiliations with strangers that operate in states. Friendships operate through love, not reciprocity. This doesn’t even begin to address the failures of a divine command warrant for political goods in a diverse culture that prizes moral autonomy.


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