11 June 2014

"The Good of Government" Scruton and Kuyper

You can go here to read a fine piece by Roger Scruton noting that conservatives need to work at explaining what goods civil government serves and not merely condemn its gargantuan excesses. As Scruton observes, "American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all, and were in the business simply of opposing all new federal programs, however necessary they may be to the future and security of the nation."

Scruton is no wishy-washy "third way" thinker; he explains what has happened in Europe ("A kind of hysteria of repudiation rages in European opinion-forming circles, picking one by one on the old and settled customs of a two-thousand-year-old civilization, and forbidding them or distorting them into some barely recognizable caricature.") and is happening in America ("The welfare state has expanded beyond the limits envisaged in the New Deal, and the Supreme Court is now increasingly used to impose the morality of a liberal elite on the American people, whether they like it or not.").

But to decry government overreach is not to deny the possibility of government under-reach:
Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own—namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.
After our times in India the danger of government under-reach has been brought home. We have seen what happens when a society does not have a sufficiently vigorous civil government to preserve the orders of family, village, and free associations.

But is that all? In other words, is it enough to argue that civil government is the flip side of freedom? Or, do we also need an account of freedom, one that justifies a civil state to preserve it? I do, at any rate, as I've argued here, here, and here.

But James Bratt's biography of Abraham Kuyper goes further where Bratt describes Kuyper's ontological argument for freedom in terms of sphere sovereignty:
Kuyper took [absolute and undivided] sovereignty out of human reach and into God's hands alone, then refracted it back down into separate "spheres" of human operation. These powers are not to be re-gathered into one ... until Christ returns in majesty at the final judgment.
In other words, civil government exists in a limited form not primarily to preserve human freedom but because it may not exceed its bounds. A valuable side effect is individual and associational freedom but that's the effect of limited government, not the cause.

For someone who, like Scruton, I believe, does not believe in God, the preservation-of-freedom argument may work well enough. The problem for one who lacks an ontology of sovereignty is the "Sez who?" challenge from someone who simply denies the importance of freedom.

Christians and others who have an ontology of sovereignty should not be afraid of deploying non-theistic arguments like Scruton's. They should, however, know the ultimate justification for such an argument as well as its limits.


  1. Roger Scruton Fan6/11/2014 7:08 PM

    A most insightful and helpful post

  2. I think Prof Scruton does now believe in God (reversing his early 90s to fairly recent statements that it's now impossible to believe in God). But, his Hegeliansim and devotion to Henry VIII's Church of England bring Pascal's definition of God to mind . . . something I'd very much enjoy asking Prof Scruton about . . .

  3. While I cannot claim to know what Scruton believes, it seems his latest book ("The Soul of the World") in which he puts forth his argument for the existence of the sacred, would necessarily imply a belief in some deity. He also wrote "The Face of God," in which he argues that man's relationship with God is of primary importance.