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Few have been brave enough to flesh out what the Ahmarist, or “anti-Frenchist,” vision of the common good should be. Some have said articulating specifics is beside the point, that Ahmarists’ refreshing achievement is unapologetically asserting a common good exists, even if they decline to say what, exactly, it is. And then, there are guys like Adrian Vermeule, writing in The Atlantic, brave enough, at least, to flesh out a vision of sorts. Vermeule calls it “common-good constitutionalism”, which he describes as “an illiberal legalism that is not ‘conservative’ at all, insofar as standard conservatism is content to play defensively within the procedural rules of the liberal order.” When Vermeule writes,
[U]nlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, [emphasis added] a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires…
it’s hard not to think of abusive priests who talk their victims – and perhaps even themselves – into believing victims should thank their abusers for lessons in authentic desire.
We should suffer from a horror of political domination. A hierarchy that doesn’t is ripe for abuse. No mere mortals are cut out to be perfect parents, even to flesh of their flesh, much less to subjects mostly strangers to them.
Mothers aren’t supposed to mention this, and conservatives, who regularly defend the good of punishment, aren’t supposed to admit this, but not all our instincts to punish children are wholesome ones.
Ideally, punishment is for discipline, and only for discipline. Discipline does not regard the punished as objects, but uses punishment to goad immature subjects into habits of maturity. When we punch a hole in a wall, or snap a vacuum cleaner wand clean in half (and I’ve done both since becoming a mom), the objects we break learn nothing. They merely serve as outlets for our frustration. Our children are people, not outlets. And yet… I’ve lost count of the times my frustration, not my childrens’ need for discipline, has sparked my instinct for punishment. I strive to control this spark, of course – not to avoid disciplining my children, but to ensure I give them discipline and not abuse. Still, I never would have guessed, before becoming a parent, how hard controlling it would be.
An all-good, all-loving God may wield parental authority that’s wholly benign, but parental authority in the hands of fallible mortals is not. It has a dark side, a side not to be trusted around too much power.
Susannah Black at Mere Orthodoxy defends Vermeule by qualifying,
[O]f course a false “common good” may be used as a rhetorical tool to support the abuse of individuals, their coercion for the good of some other person or group. But the true common good simply never can.
To which we may as well add that no true Scotsman ever does whatever it is that no true Scotsmen do.
There is in reality no competition between individual good and the good of the community: we are members of each other in reality… seeking to care for each person while, and by, caring for the community… This cuts, entirely, both ways: it is not good for a community if any member of it should be abused, unjustly ruled, exploited.
I believe in the Christian apocalyptic vision. I await a time-out-of-time when Christ will rule, and, with all subject to Him, be All in All. Contrary to COVID-19 headlines, though, the apocalypse is not now. Now we see in a mirror dimly. We do not see face to face. We do not see the true common good – and it’s arrogance to think we can.
We’re not wholly blind to true common good, of course. Still, we lack enough vision to be entrusted with great power over our fellow mortals. In Christ, who personifies reality, we are all members of each other and there is no competition between individual and community good. In worship, we come together for a foretaste of this reconciliation, as members of each other, without conflict. But political power isn’t worship, regimes aren’t the Messiah, and it’s reasonable to fear rulers – or would-be kingmakers – who seem to presume otherwise.
Matt McManus divides libertarians into two types, egalitarian and hierarchical. That is, McManus observes some people are libertarian because they believe people aren’t morally unequal enough to justify one dominating another, while others are libertarian because they believe people are morally unequal, and freedom (particularly economic freedom) gives the superior liberty to dominate. The latter respect autonomy so that the autonomy of the strong may flourish, untrammeled. The former respect autonomy even – perhaps especially – in the weak. The latter needn’t have a horror of domination. The former absolutely must. I am among the former, what Black would apparently call a “right liberal”.
Black contends that liberals, on the right or left, have “give[n] up on any non-liberal vision of government, any good communitarianism.” In this formulation, Black equates communitarianism with illiberalism, which puzzles me, since Black herself asserts, “There is in reality no competition between individual good and the good of the community.” If there is, in reality, no competition, then why would it be necessary to embrace illiberalism to achieve communitarianism? Why should it be impossible to respect both others’ individual autonomy and the bonds they share with their community? (Is it even possible to respect another’s autonomy if you have no respect for the bonds he shares with his community? Those bonds, after all, are his. They are not yours to dominate.)
That said, no inherent competition between individual and community good is necessary for fallible humans to treat them as rival goods. It’s obviously quite tempting for “let’s not scandalize the community” to become the excuse we use to ignore wrongs done to individuals within it. These wrongs may ultimately hurt the community, too, but there is a great deal of ruin in a community. Communities can spend a long time rotting from the inside out as abuse goes ignored in order to keep up appearances.
For this reason, Vermeule’s insouciant assertions that “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate” and a common-good constitutionalism should not
minimize the abuse of power (an incoherent goal in any event), but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well
are horrifying, not because we must judge the goodness of government solely by whether it minimizes abuse of its powers, but because they give rhetorical cover to strongmen who have no qualms about abusing power for the sake of a so-called “common good”.
Black, who intends to defend Vermeule, at least partially, against his critics by pleading,
One can disagree with Vermeule on other bases [than his favoring strong government]. Feel free to do so: on the basis of the belief there should be no coercion in religion, for example, as a substantive principle.
only adds to the horror, since such a plea admits Vermeule is perfectly fine with coercion which successfully masquerades as the one true faith.
Vermeule’s framing of common-good constitutionalism is not repugnant because it touts, in Black’s words, “The good of energy in the executive, of a wise ruler, and of well-exercised authority,” but because it delights in dismissing concerns that abuse of power is a problem, when all of human experience, from the great arcs of history, the meta-narrative of Christian salvation, down to the pettiest instincts flaring in our own hearts, tells us that it is.
I admire and respect a great many souls who oppose libertarianism or “right liberalism” in various ways. Many of them are fellow Christians, whose opposition comes from their Christian convictions. Some fear the social-justice left most of all. Some fear that economic-liberty advocacy is deluded to believe it advocates any sort of liberty at all, rather than just the tyranny of Mammon. What all these souls have in common, though, is genuine horror at abuse of power. I may worry, for example, that a guy like Rod Dreher is too naive about authoritarian impulses on the illiberal right, but I have no doubt Dreher is a soul viscerally horrified by abuse of power – and that matters. Vermeule? Not so much. For all I know, Vermeule may not delight in abuses of power himself, but he won’t go out of his way to remind the powerful that they shouldn’t.Published in