Meddling and Puritanical Jacobins

British philosopher Roger Scruton has written recently about social trust, a key to any nation’s stability: “the sense that we are bound to each other by a shared loyalty, and that we will stand by each other in emergencies.” Social trust comes from: “shared language, shared customs, instinctive law-abidingness, procedures for resolving disputes and grievances, public spirit and the ability of the people to change their own government by a process that is transparent to them all.”

The worst thing that can happen is the despair that arises when too many feel the loss of the trust that binds. This is largely what drove Brexit; it’s mostly what’s driving discontent in the United States. Personal power slips away; the social fabric frays. And we see and fear the proliferation of factions about which James Madison warned in Federalist #10.

The image below is Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” from his 1943 Four Freedoms series, inspired by F.D.R.’s ‘41 State of the Union address. Those freedoms were of speech and religion, and from want and fear. Rockwell’s “Speech” depicts a Lincolnesque workingman having his say at a Vermont town meeting.

The paintings illustrated Saturday Evening Post stories by famous American writers; in this case Booth Tarkington, whose clumsily written tale is of a mountain inn encounter between a young Italian revolutionary and a younger German artist, who talk ominously about their shared distaste of liberty. When the Italian leaves, the German asks the innkeeper his name. The man shrugs: he has heard others call him “Benito,” then adds: “You might run across him here again. . .Herr Hitler.”

“Freedom of Speech” shows participatory democracy idealized but familiar, because it functioned effectively in most American communities at least through the 1950s.

Professor Scruton sees Britain’s situation in the European Union as an affront to common law, which is:

not imposed from above but extracted from below, by judges whose aim is to do justice in the individual case, rather than to reform the conduct of mankind. . . .The rights dreamed up in the European Courts, by judges who do not pay the cost of imposing them, are experiments in social engineering. . .in no matter more evident than in those clauses that have imposed the mores of the elite on a reluctant residue of Christian believers.

[Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA]
[Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA]

Scruton’s view, similar in many ways to Friedrich Hayek’s exposition of spontaneous order, is fine as far as it goes, although the Catholic concept of subsidiarity is superior, and actually closer to the ideas “in the air,” in Thomas Jefferson phrase, at the time of America’s founding. Ours is a nation built from the ground up: the “only nation in the world,” as G.K. Chesterton put it, “founded on a creed.” We begin with that creed and not with hierarchies of wealth or class: “a nation,” G.K.C. wrote, “with the soul of a church.”

Nearly a century before Chesterton visited America, Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the intersection of Catholicism and Americanism and found reasons to worry and reasons for hope. It was Tocqueville’s sense that among all Christians belief was waning, but that:

as soon as they have any religion, they immediately find in themselves a latent instinct that urges them unconsciously towards Catholicism [because] . . .they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its great unity attracts them. If Catholicism could at length withdraw itself from the political animosities to which it has given rise. . .that same spirit of the age which appears to be so opposed to it would become so favorable as to admit of its great and sudden advancement.

Prescient as he was, Tocqueville could not foresee either the emergence of the doctrine of subsidiarity later in his own century or the extent to which, a century after that, the Church would adopt a “progressive” view of social justice and make common cause with government, its elites. . .and its political animosities.

None of these luminaries could ever have imagined that factions would take possession of two of America’s separated powers or that the nation’s younger citizens, abetted by the Executive and the Judiciary, would see traditions, moral and legal, as inimical to justice, now become merely a synonym for equality.

What Scruton concludes about his countrymen may also apply to ours:

Law, for the British, is the property of the individual citizen, not the state: it is what protects us from intrusion, safeguards our eccentricities, and cocks a snook at the meddlers and the puritans for whom conformity to official codes is more important than the freedom of the citizen to ignore them.

Pius XI defined subsidiarity: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

In 1790, Edmund Burke made a similar analysis of the first Jacobins – Judases all – noting what he termed the “profligate disregard of a dignity which they [elites] partake with others,” whereas:

to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. . . . [N]one but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

The intuitive loss of this first link is behind the anger so much in evidence this year. Our political parties care little about it, though they pander to it, and America seems evermore a nation with the soul of an infomercial, our patrimony bartered away for the political equivalent of thirty pieces of silver.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.