Learning to Love Small Government Again
The false “small government” of classical liberalism is a state with less authority but more power.
Destruction of Leviathan, 1866 engraving by Gustave Doré. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Presumably, God sent Covid as a rebuke to the so-called illiberal right.
You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? National conservatives, Catholic integralists, and the like. They read Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule. They fantasize about a Hawley/Vance ticket in 2028. They pine for a strong, right-wing regime—one that will uphold traditional values, revive our national industry, and restore American greatness. Their ideal leader is a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Charlemagne.
Folks like me.
We’ve spilled a lot of ink talking about the “common good” and other high-minded ideals. We’ve scorned the old alliance between Christian conservatives, civil libertarians, and free-marketeers. Sunday trading and porn would be outlawed again. No-fault divorce would be abolished and child tax credits multiplied. We’ve even talked about raising the minimum wage to a family wage.
Then came the pandemic. Churches that didn’t voluntarily suspend services were usually shut down by the government. In-person commerce was halted around the world by government fiat. Parents were forced to play teacher’s assistant for their kiddos’ Zoom classes. Local officials like Andrew Cuomo sent Covid patients back to their nursing homes and then forced the old folks to “shelter in place,” killing untold thousands. And, of course, citizens were forced to wear face masks whenever they dared to leave their homes.
Our great cities were left looking like Hell in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce: “Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.”
Now the Biden administration has imposed a vaccine mandate for the military and wants companies with more than 100 employees to force their workers to get the jab. (For reference, a small Walmart has over 200 employees.) This, despite the fact that many Christians have moral reservations about the vaccines.
And it’s all being done in the name of the common good.
It’s a rude reminder of why older conservatives are so down on Big Government. We probably should have paid them mind.
But does that mean our critique of liberalism was wrong?
If we say yes, we’re saying that liberalism and small government go hand-in-hand. Naturally, it would follow that the advent of liberalism brought about a shrinking of the state. That’s a question for an historian, then, not a political philosopher. And if we look to our history books we’ll see that liberals (quite literally) invented Big Government.
But we can make this reality much clearer if we first make a distinction between authority and power.
It’s true that Europe’s rulers had more authority before the Enlightenment. They claimed for themselves a much larger prerogative than our own republics and democracies do today. Kings took the liberty of smothering heresy, witchcraft, blasphemy, and other acts deemed sinful by the Christian church. They made moral decisions on behalf of their subjects as a father might for his second-grader.
On the other hand, these medieval kings had nothing like the power which our liberal regimes have come to enjoy. They might have claimed a much larger prerogative, but their ability to act upon their will was infinitesimally smaller. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, the feudal tyrant “hanged and burned in quite a small way.”
Which makes sense, when you think about it. During the Middle Ages, there was no real use for large-scale tyranny. The mechanisms of state oppression were designed specifically to impose liberal theories on the peoples of Europe.
During the medieval period, there was virtually no competition between competing worldviews. Wars weren’t fought across ideological lines. It was all a question of whether you happened to pay taxes to John the Bald or Robert the Fat. No: practically speaking, all Europeans believed the same things. They were monarchist in politics, feudalist in economics, Catholic in religion.
Then along came the philosophes. They’d been thinking about it, and they decided the medieval consensus was all wrong. Governments and economies should be organized according to rational principles, not personal loyalties. Kings and lairds should be done away with. So too the Church, which cows the masses with visions of hellfire.
The question is, how do you bring the Enlightenment to the people? The answer: with great care and much violence.
Take the example of France. From the Committee for Public Safety to the reign of Napoleon I, her revolutionary governments sought to completely remake the nation in their own image.
Naturally, the first step was to abolish local government: the rule of local magistrates upholding local customs.
Voltaire once quipped that a man traveling in France “changes his law almost as often as he changes his horses.” This wasn’t really an issue, since Christian kings had abolished the old Roman principle of Ignorantia juris non excusat. If a Norman merchant in Lyon drank wine with his left hand on St. Guinefort’s Day, in violation of Lyonnaise custom, he would almost certainly be let off with a warning. Like good Christians, they tempered their justice with mercy.
Otherwise, most laws were handed down by royal decree. But those decrees traveled so slowly, and at such irregular intervals, that they were essentially moot by the time they reached the local gerent. In the absence of an efficient, centralized regime, towns and villages were left with no choice but to rule themselves. Small Government was the norm because Big Government wasn’t an option.
Nevertheless, that irregularity in local laws and the laxity of local magistrates irritated our philosophes. They sought to revive the old Roman ideal: a legal code based on reason, which could be adopted by (or imposed upon) all civilized peoples. But in order to build their neoclassical republic, the fabric of French society would need to be torn apart. A new France would have to be woven according to the philosophes’ more “rational” vision.
And so, as royalist statesman Pierre Paul Royer-Collard observed, the revolutionaries sought to destroy all of the “true republics within the monarchy.” By this he meant a “crowd of domestic institutions and independent magistracies”—what Burke called the little platoons.
Guilds were abolished. Education was nationalized. Administrative divisions were reorganized. The Revolution swept away these “true republics” and “left only individuals standing.”
That wasn’t the end of it. “From an atomized society has emerged centralization,” Royer-Collard observes:
There is no need to look elsewhere for its origin. Centralization has not arrived with its head erect, with the authority of a principle; rather; it has developed modestly, as a consequence, a necessity. Indeed, where there are only individuals, all business which is not theirs is necessarily public business, the business of the state. Where there are no independent magistrates, there are only agents of central power. That is how we have become an administered people, under the hand of irresponsible civil servants, themselves centralized in the power of which they are agents.
Even the French language was placed under the control of Parisian bureaucrats. As the noisome Abbé Grégoire wrote, “The local dialects, the patois of six million French people who do not speak the national language, will gradually disappear because—and I can’t say it often enough—it is more important politically to eradicate this diversity of coarse idioms, which prolong the infancy of reason and the age of prejudice.” So, under the new liberal regime, regional dialects and accents were systematically eradicated.
Their de-Christianization campaign was even more brutal. Monks and nuns were murdered by the score. Priests were forced to swear loyalty to the government and take a wife. Churches were confiscated and turned into temples for the regime’s state religions, the Culte de la Raison and the Culte de l’Être suprême. The Jacobins even sought to rename every street in the country that was named after a saint.
Napoleon’s liberalism was far less dogmatic, but only because he was more interested in consolidating power than wielding authority. He devoted his reign to building an administrative state the likes of which Europe had never seen. Of course, that meant putting France on a strict regimen of tax hikes and red tape. In his 1819 essay Bourbons and Buonapartes, François-René de Chateaubriand complained:
We have praised Buonaparte’s administration. If administration consists in numerals—if, to govern well, it suffices to know how much a province produces in wheat, wine, and oil, what is the last penny one may levy as tax, the last man one may take—then certainly Buonaparte was a great administrator. It is impossible better to organize evil or put more order into disorder. But if the best administration is that which leaves the people in peace, which nourishes their sentiments of justice and piety, which is frugal with the blood of men, which respects the rights of citizens, their properties and their families, then certainly the government of Buonaparte was the worst of governments.
Napoleon also followed the Jacobins in building up an efficient, centralized police force specializing in domestic surveillance. That force served the House of Bonaparte even during the Second Republic. In 1848, Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon was elected president. In 1851, he declared himself emperor, though his reign was strikingly like that of a modern dictator—especially in his use of the police to disseminate propaganda and silence dissent.
These naked power-grabs took place all over Europe. True, they weren’t always as bloody as in France. Often enough, they were adopted by monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia or Peter I of Russia. They accepted liberal principles (e.g., religious toleration) in order to build a more efficient, “modern” administration. Today, we call them Enlightened despots, though I’m not sure there could be such a thing as an un-Enlightened despot. As we said, the Enlightenment invented despotism.
Immanuel Kant distinguished himself as the great literary champion of Enlightened despotism. So he wrote,
Enlightenment requires nothing but freedom, and the most innocent of all that may be called freedom: that is, freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now, I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue—drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue—pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue—believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!”
Indeed, says Kant,
only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well-disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace—only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: “Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!”
Every successive government has taken up this mantra, including ours. We’re allowed to think and say anything we like, so long as we don’t presume to act. If we do—well, they can always send in the National Guard.
True, our own Enlightened despots are seldom as brazen as Napoleon. Their propagandists are rarely so explicit as Kant. Yet every liberal regime is gradually consumed by bureaucracy, and as the administrative state expands, so does the temptation to silence dissent.
We see it play out in our own country. It began with the loyalist purges of the Revolutionary period. It continued with Abraham Lincoln’s invasion of the South. Today, the regime uses a combination of political and economic pressure to enforce its ideology—a system described ably by Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed and by Rod Dreher in Live Not By Lies. Indeed, few pre-modern regimes were so efficient at quashing dissent as the United States government.
The question now is how should the “illiberal right” deal with the liberal Leviathan?
This is where some division may arise within the illiberal ranks. Many would suggest we coopt the superstate for our own purposes. Professor Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School is the best-known exponent of this view. In his 2020 essay for The Atlantic, “Beyond Originalism,” Prof. Vermeule calls on Republicans to embrace the Democrats’ total-war strategy. We shouldn’t seek to uphold constitutional government, he says. Rather, we should reeducate the Leviathan “based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good.”
Likewise, this past August, American Mind published a striking article called “The Salazar Option.” The author, Christopher Roach, argues that American conservatives should emulate the Portuguese strongman António de Oliveira Salazar. Like Prof. Vermeule, he believes we should use the liberal administrative state to advance a right-wing agenda. “To survive,” says Mr. Roach, “we need to be committed to acquiring and using power in the service of a counterrevolution.”
No doubt there’s some truth in what they say. But I suspect their thinking has much in common with the Very Online royalists who idolize King Louis XIV and Pope Pius V. They imagine an all-powerful (but Christian) regime, where every aspect of public life is controlled by either the State or the Church.
It’s not difficult to see how folks who admire the absolute monarchies of the Renaissance would be intrigued by a figure like Salazar or by Prof. Vermeule’s idea of “integration from within.” But no historian would deny that Renaissance political philosophy is very different from that of the medievals. We can’t obscure the distinction between feudalism and absolutism.
Absolutism is the system defined and defended by 17th century thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Sir Robert Filmer, and Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. It was inspired by the same surge of interest in classical philosophy that eventually gave us the Enlightenment. (No doubt the very heavy-handed theories of government laid out by Plato and Aristotle were accentuated by the Byzantine refugees who carried them to Europe.)
Of course, absolutism also evolved as a bulwark against the proto-liberalism of the Renaissance humanists, much as Enlightened despotism would evolve as a bulwark against republicanism. It was a kind of “Dark Enlightenment,” a humanism shot through with pessimism about human nature. So, for instance, Filmer references Latin texts even more often than does Rousseau. The difference is that, while Rousseau championed Roman republicans, Filmer saw the new absolute monarchies as a rebirth of the Roman Empire.
Feudalism, meanwhile, began to evolve much earlier during the so-called Dark Ages. It was a rejection of Pax Romana—an attempt to forge a Christian statecraft entirely untainted by decadent, pagan tyrannies. It defined itself against the Byzantine Empire, with its all-powerful bureaucracy, which was manned by scheming eunuchs, all of whom ate their supper with forks. In time, defenders of the old feudal model would also quarrel equally with Renaissance absolutism and Enlightenment liberalism, both of which bore hallmarks of Byzantinism.
It’s difficult to define the principles of feudalism because they evolved organically over the course of a millennium or so. But there’s a large body of (admittedly disparate) thinkers who were inspired by the medieval model. All of them would agree with the basic distinction made by Ralph Adams Cram between “the Renaissance monarchies,” which “were so obviously out of key with the principles of justice and liberty,” and “the free kingship of the Middle Ages.”
So, for instance, moderate liberals like Edmund Burke mourned the end of France’s absolutist regime. “But the age of chivalry is gone,” he cried, “and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Ultra-royalists like Joseph de Maistre, on the other hand, lost no love for the effete, autocratic Bourbons. Observing the Reign of Terror, Maistre coldly remarked: “It has been a long time since we have seen such frightful punishment inflicted on such a large number of guilty people. No doubt there are innocents among the unfortunate victims, but they are far fewer than commonly imagined.”
The divide between Burke and Maistre signals a permanent division in the conservative movement. It’s not a hard division, but it’s one that continues to generate confusion on the right.
On the one hand, we have figures who feel at home in the post-medieval order. They’re basically at ease with the administrative State, meaning they see government in terms of power, not authority. They may sympathize with either the Renaissance absolutists, the Enlightened despots, or the liberal republics; perhaps they have a fondness for all three. We’ll call this faction the conservatives.
Burke himself is an obvious example of this tendency. Likewise “neo-absolutists” such as Juan Donoso Cortés and Charles Maurras, who would attempt to revive Filmer’s concept of the dictator-king. We’ll include integralists like Prof. Vermeule in this category as well because they’re not interested in fundamentally altering the administrative State.
On the other hand, we have figures who cannot reconcile themselves to the administrative state in any form. They may or may not be monarchists, but they’re concerned first and foremost with restoring the “true republics within the monarchy” spoken of by Royer-Collard. They’re not libertarians; they believe in authority, in commonwealth. But they believe that power should be decentralized. It should be taken away from the State and given back to smaller, more local institutions: guilds, parishes, city councils, etc. We’ll call them reactionaries.
Reactionaries have even less common ground with Jacobins than do conservatives. Yet, paradoxically, they also tend to be more sympathetic to the French Revolution than conservatives. Some share Maistre’s contempt for the hypocrisy and degeneracy of absolutism. More usual are figures like William Cobbett, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. All three were deeply inspired by the Middle Ages, though all three also had a tendency to romanticize the Revolution. Yet the reasons they gave for their romanticism are instructive.
For example, we’ve already seen how medieval magistrates did away with the principle “Ignorance of the law excuses not” and prosecuted travelers according to their own custom. This may seem odd, coming from the peoples who erected inquisitions to hound heretics. But, as any honest historian will admit, the inquisitions were designed to save heretics, not to punish them. They allowed heretics to defend themselves at a fair trial, so as to placate the mobs who had otherwise resolved to take justice into their own hands—like the one that tried to stone Peter Abelard at Soissons in 1121.
The vast majority of those prosecuted by the inquisition were acquitted; that included most of those who preached heterodox views about the Christian faith. Inquisitors would readily set a heretic free if he was unlikely to be successful at spreading heresy—if he was stupid, for instance, or ugly.
Which is to say that medieval government was ordered towards not governing. Medieval laws were passed with the implicit desire that they not be enforced.
Likewise, Belloc points out that medieval Christians and paid-up Jacobins both placed “the dignity of man and of the equality of men” at the heart of their political philosophy. And that’s quite true. For instance, while all the land in a medieval kingdom was technically divided among a small number of lairds and vassals, the customs dictating land ownership were so biased in favor of the poor that ownership entailed virtually no control.
Along with the Roman principle of Ignorantia juris non excusat, the medievals did away with the ius abutendi, or “right of abuse.” Feudal lords didn’t have the right to evict their serfs, though serfs could sell land to one another. They could expect a certain percentage of their peasants’ annual yield, in exchange for protecting them from invaders or brigands, but otherwise peasants had free rein of their ten acres. That’s not mentioning their traditional right to take firewood from the laird’s forests, to graze their sheep in his pastures, and so on.
This wasn’t a kind of primitive socialism. It had nothing to do with law and everything to do with custom. Feudalism was a (surprisingly durable) bargain struck between the ruler and the ruled, which ably served the needs of both parties. Every aspect of society was knit together by these informal bonds, which were upheld for the love of—or, at least, the desire for peace with—one’s neighbor.
Are we romanticizing the Middle Ages? Not at all. In fact, the same analysis has long been made even by non-Western observers—and not always flatteringly. The 19th-century tsarist thinker Konstantin Leontiev blamed Catholic feudalism for the rise of liberalism. Western rulers had been too quick to coddle their peasants, he complained. Western feudalism filled the serfs with samouvazheniyu, or self-esteem. They developed a “jittery a sense of their own dignity.” It was only a matter of time until they revolted. Leontiev used the same language to damn the Middle Ages that Chesterton used to praise them.
So here we have the two different models: (A) In the modern world, nations are disparate groups of atomized individuals bound together only by a set of laws. Those laws are ratified by a ruling class and enforced through State violence. (B) In the Middle Ages, folks were bound together in close-knit units by interpersonal loyalty and common custom. The French historian Régine Pernoud neatly summed up feudal Europe as “a society with communitarian leanings, although administered by personal agreements.”
Again, reactionaries are those who instinctively gravitate towards the medieval model. They’re inherently suspicious of large, complicated systems, whether it’s a national welfare system or the global supply chain. They prefer local government and small-scale economies—what the Catholic Church calls solidarity.
And despite their commitment to liberty, they still believe in authority. They would agree with J.R.R. Tolkien that “if we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people.”
And they believe that our rulers have a legitimate (if limited) role to play—the role laid out by Chateaubriand: “that which leaves the people in peace, which nourishes their sentiments of justice and piety, which is frugal with the blood of men, which respects the rights of citizens, their properties and their families.”
Examples in the 20th century would be Robert Penn Warren, E.F. Schumacher, and Russell Kirk. In the 21st century we have folks like Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, Joel Salatin, and Bill Kauffman. They may not think of themselves as reactionary, let alone medieval. Many of them would probably identify with old-school liberalism, as did Chesterton and Belloc. But I think that’s a mistake.
Actually, I think it’s one of the fundamental mistakes of our age. It’s the problem that I have set out here to identify: the false identification of liberalism with freedom and of “illiberalism” with tyranny. As we’ve seen, just the opposite was true. Real tyranny was impossible without liberalism. This cold, dispassionate, “rational” approach to statecraft allowed autocrats like Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln to build administrative states the likes of which the world had never seen.
The cruelest sin of this regime, however, may be the fact that it makes real love of neighbor impossible. Under present circumstances, we can’t forge those informal bonds that undergirded medieval society. We can’t deal with one another in a neighborly way, relying on bonds of charity and honor. Why? Because we’re told not to.
We’re defined by our relationship to the state. Every single economic, political, and social interaction we have with our fellow man is regulated by the state. There’s always some law, regulation, or tax which ensures the government will interpose itself between ourselves and our family, our friends, our neighbor, our countrymen. During the pandemic, we learned that we even need the State’s permission to worship God.
This all-powerful State would delight Caesar Augustus or Emperor Napoleon; to Christendom, it’s repugnant. That is why mere “conservatism” isn’t enough. Integralism isn’t enough. Libertarianism isn’t enough. There’s no point in simply trying to minimize the modern state. We can’t bend it to our will.
You can’t tame the Leviathan. You have to kill it.
Michael Warren Davis is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, October 2021). His website is www.northofboston.blog.