More Churchin’ Up; State-in Down

In this slow time of the year, I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting in full an earlier blog entry, Churchin’ Up; State-in Down. Kim Du Toit’s really excellent bit this week put me in mind of it, and I went back and re-read it. “holy cow Bill White”, says I; that wasn’t a bad little essay. And an essay it is – long and reasonably well thought out.
Kim’s interesting piece makes the point that even though he’s an atheist, he follows the Ten Commandments, because the Ten, or something like them, is simply the right way to live peaceably. He argues that there are three layers of moderating factors in society – morality, manners, and the law; and that their importance to us is in precisely that order. When you destroy morality, or manners, the only regulating factor left in society is the law – a precise instrument that is manifestly unsuitable for regulating the multivariate situations that arise in daily life. The end result is a people who have no guiding principles for their behavior, necessitating a thicket of laws governing the minutae of life. And this, of course, is a recipe for statist tyranny.
Kim’s profoundly conservative essay draws openly from Albert Jay Nock, one of the giants of 20th Century conservatism, a man who should be mentioned in the same breath with Kirk, Bagehot, Buckley, and yes, Hayek. Nock’s source, of course, was Edmund Burke. And as Burke himself would point out, he didn’t invent these ideas – he just observed how things worked.
So Kim and faithful reader(s)(?), I give you Churchin’ Up, State-in Down, republished from October. I took the liberty of cleaning up a few awkward phrases and ideas, but otherwise it’s pretty much unchanged.


Recently I’ve found myself drawn back to church – no, it’s not some big – no mission from God. No “Jake, Elwood, well, the sister was right; you boys could use a little churchin’ up. Slide on over to the Triple Rock and catch Reverend Cleophus. You boys listen to what he’s got to say.”
That would never work for me. I’m the kind of person, that if God came to me and said he had a mission for me, I’d start drinking a lot more heavily until the voices stopped. So that would be a non-starter.
Nope, for me it’s sort of a backslide. I’ve tried to be a one of the good pagans, but it hasn’t really worked out too well.
I happen to be Catholic, and for anybody brought up in that faith, there’s a constant pull. I notice that some of the most devout and activist atheists describe themselves as ex-Catholics; and I suspect their zeal comes from a reaction to the internal pull toward the Church generated by growing up in the Church, or perhaps by something else less easily articulated or apprehended.
This inchoate pull might be genetic, and it might happen to people other than Catholics. I dunno – do Buddhists still get the urge to meditate, if they haven’t done so for years?
Geneticists (biological anthropologists, really) recently completed a study that concluded it’s quite likely that an impulse to worship the Divine is bred into our DNA. It’s not clear, in a rational sense, whether this was a gift from whatever god you happen to worship, or merely natural selection favoring those who formed coherent, ritualized moral and social orders. Regardless, people all over the world, from all cultures, seem to feel this pull.
Sometimes maybe you get a message from God. For Jake and Elwood, it wasn’t the Penguin or Curtis that did it. It wasn’t even the sight of Appolonia in a purple robe that brought them to their knees – though she had that effect on the Artist formerly known as a goofy symbol. Not for the Blues Brothers – they actually had a big ol’ light shine on them… come to think of it, that’s how a bluesman would have a conversion. Let the midnight special, shine a light on me… etc.
And though I love the blues as much as a white boy lawyer can, that wasn’t in the cards for me. The only person I ever met at the crossroads is that guy in a Jaguar, waiting to turn left in front of me.
My own catalyzing event is the impending birth of a son and presumptive heir, hereinafter Njal. (I was hoping to call him Eric Bloodaxe, but Mrs. Maviva objected – so his presence on this blog, insofar as it goes, will be as the contemplative lawyer/prophet of several of the Icelandic sagas).
After a lot of discussions with Mrs. Maviva, we decided that young Njal will need a good moral grounding – and insofar as we don’t make any claims to have cornered the market on morality, we thought the Church would be a good place for him to learn the basic ground rules. Actually, that’s a lie. It was one fairly short conversation, lasting about 15 minutes total over three days. We’ve managed to find a fairly conservative parish, with smart, orthodox priests and a congregation that is very active in local charities, and a genuine sense of faith, and it feels like I’ve come home again. It was like putting on a favorite old wool sweater on a rainy, cold day – only better.
But why? I’ve got some cash rolling in, a nicely stocked couple of wine racks, a comfy reading chair, the latest desktop computer, a much better wife than I could have hoped to land, and a reasonably satisfying job. Why the heck should I bother getting up early on a Sunday and going to church, or doing all the extra stuff that comes with religion generally? I’ve got all the material things I could ask for. Why should I care? Why should anybody?
For that matter, why is it that we humans generally seek out moral order, and why does it seem natural to us to follow a set of moral rules? Over half the people in this country regularly go to church. What use could it possibly serve us?
In Russell Kirk’s gloss of Edmund Burke (and others), The Conservative Mind, he quotes Burke as saying “All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter mode and application, but they have no power over the substance of original justice.” Kirk explains, “[m]en have no power to alter the laws as their fancy suggests; the superior law is not in the power of any political community to amend.”
In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing the important things in life. No matter what laws we write or amend, no matter what our political sentiments are, right and wrong are unalterable, as is reality itself. Or as an Army First Sergeant once told me, “wishin’ don’t make it so.” There are limits to what our laws can accomplish – an ineluctible facts that “progressives” can’t seem to understand.
Kirk continues, interweaving the notion of moral reality, with the physical, and talks about how our “progressive” politics get out of kilter and lead to a bad end:

Ours is a moral order then, and our laws derived from the immortal moral laws; the higher happiness is moral happiness, says Burke, and the cause of suffering is moral evil. Pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, disorderly appetites – these vices are the actual causes of the storms that trouble life. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, the rights of men, are the pretexts of sentimental humanitarians and mischievous agitators who think that established institutions are the source of our afflictions. But the human heart, in reality, is the fountain of evil. “You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of the state, nor ministers of the gospel; no interpreters of the laws, no general officers, no public councils. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names.”

What Kirk and Burke are getting at there, are a couple very simple things.
First, “But the human heart, in reality, is the fountain of evil.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all evil. What it means, is that there’s no situation so water-tight that simple human mucking about can’t screw it up. In the words of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, we could eff up a wet dream. And we often do. Sure, nature can be pretty harsh, and it’s possible to screw up by doing nothing at all. But most of the trouble we get ourselves into – whether it’s blowing relationships, flunking at school, going to jail, forgetting to pay a credit card bill or pissing off the neighbor by blowing leaves at 6:00 AM on Saturday – is self inflicted.
Second, “Ours is a moral order then, and our laws derived from the immortal moral laws; the higher happiness is moral happiness, says Burke, and the cause of suffering is moral evil.”
This statement is premised on the idea that our morals mimic nature, and that violating “natural laws” is immoral, and “unnatural” in the sense that it disturbs the natural order of things. The truth of this statement is borne out in our fundamental rules for human interaction, such as the 10 commandments, or other highly moralistic codes to set a floor for human behavior. Anybody who has been caught in bed with the neighbor’s wife, been caught stealing, or lying, or had their but whipped by a parent they defied, can testify to the adverse results naturally flowing from a violation of these laws. The First Commandment in the Judeo-Christian scripture – the one about honoring God – isn’t so much a specific order as a general order to obey the moral code. The other stuff about not eating pork, or slaying every seventh son of Melchizadek for some outlaw-ery, is just minor details. The main lesson to learn is that our traditional moral code imitates nature; and violation of the code is a violation of the natural way; and nature itself may undertake to punish us if we defy its ways.
Third, “Pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, disorderly appetites – these vices are the actual causes of the storms that trouble life.”
Think about something that we consider a traditional vice, then ponder for a minute what results from engaging in the vice. I happen to enjoy my booze, for instance, but generally I don’t get plowed. If I do get plowed, I’m usually punished with a bad hangover. If I was to do it frequently, I’d be “punished” – not by God but by nature – with cirrhosis, brain damage, maybe heart disease, and eventually an untimely death. Never mind the fact that booze often lowers our inhibitions and leads us into compromising situations – sexual indiscretions, domestic violence and workplace screwups are only three of the more common results of drinking to excess. Sure, it’s “moralistic” to say you shouldn’t drink too much; but this moralistic statement is grounded in natural reality.
So many of the things we define as “sin” in the Judeo-Christian world are grounded in the physical realities of life – and many behaviors counseled against in other societies are similarly damaging. See, for example, prohibitions on incest (with its correspondingly higher birth defect rate, and destructive effect on the family structure) in many tribal societies.
Fourth, what then is the larger purpose of this moral order, and its recapitulation in our laws and institutions? According to Burke, “You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of the state, nor ministers of the gospel; no interpreters of the laws, no general officers, no public councils. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names.”
What Burke (and his student removed by two centuries, Kirk) is getting at here is that properly constituted institutions embody traditional morality and traditional ways of doing things – such methods usually being the right way of doing things. When institutions are properly established, they function as a buffer between the lower instincts of man’s heart, and other men who are merely going about their business.
Burke faults the radicals with attacking institutions and the men who run them, rather than worrying about solving the particular vices that vex us.
This model relies very much on a premise of personal responsibility. While a radical would see a littered street and call for the head of the mayor, the police chief, and the commisioner of public works, a conservative would try to get the existing institutions to pick up the litter – or failing that, attack the “vice” of litter directly, picking it up himself.
Burke called these little organizations aimed at improving one’s community “life’s little platoons.” Jonah Goldberg has commented on his own little platoon – a group of dog walkers that more or less spontaneously organized to clean up a park used for dog walking in downtown Washington. The maintenance function of life’s little platoon’s is only one half of the story. One wonders if the denizens of Dupont Circle – many of whom are flamingly homosexual, or irritatingly metrosexual – realize that they prove a profoundly conservative point each time they scoop some poop with some neighbors.
The other purpose served by these little platoons is that they supplement the big battalions, the institutions around which we organize society. This communitarian spirit (with apologies to Amitai Etzioni) is what makes things work. These little platoons do not form to attack the mayor and demand the DPW picks up dog poop – they form to fight the vice of accumulated dog poop on the commons. Sure, little groups of 40 or 50 people around town could eventually stage a revolution and displace the mayor with a potentate of poop. But who’s to say the new potentate would be any better at educating kids, keeping snow off the roads, policing crime, or, for that matter, pooper scooping?
This is where the sophomoric understanding of libertarianism falls down these days.
The libertarian critique – and that is all you are going to get from Reason.com, Lew Rockwell and most of the libertarian purists – is great at tearing down institutions. Tim Cavanagh and Jesse Walker at Reason are particularly proud of their church bashing, and we’re all proud of their ability to smack statist conservative G. W. Bush around. If you are so inclined, you can get a great critique of intellectual property law – it seems that Ayn Rand, were she still alive, would steal, er, download, as much music as she could fit on her hard drive because hey, the music companies are rich anyhow.
But that’s all most public libertarians seem to do these days – critique and tear down. They haven’t yet presented specific, positive suggestions for getting things done. “Let the market handle it” only gets you so far, when you are trying to regulate air traffic, for instance.
So how can we reduce government interference without jettisoning the institutions we now rely on, and without attacking the people who run things? How can we improve things in a manner consistent with conservative, and perhaps libertarian values?
Well, it’s not easy, but we can do it by improving the institutions that regulate our behavior.
Huh?
Burke noted that man generally has a tendency to go all Lord of the Flies, if left in his natural state. He posited that there are two sources of good behavior in society – external restraints, and internal restraints. Assume that good behavior = Z, external restraints = X and internal restraints =Y. Restrained behavior – nominally civil, useful behavior, a situation where we all go along and get along, could be summarized thus:
X + Y = Z
In other words, it doesn’t matter how you get to “civilized behavior” as long as you have achieved a certain threshold of regulation. You can regulate personal behavior with a set of laws governing all social interaction. Or you can rely on informal, non-governmental bodies to regulate, or perhaps even internalized codes of conduct that we all carry, like little law books in our hearts. (Note that these little law books are, for most people, developed from external rule books. On occasion, you may meet a contemplative person who has spent years carefully constructing a perfectly internal, empirical code of conduct… but most of us don’t have the time or intellectual horsepower to do that.)
Mature libertarians, including the father of modern libertarianism, Friedrich Hayek, realize this. Hayek himself argued that although personal liberty is a very important goal, it stems in large part from internal codes of conduct which limit our behavior – consequently limiting the amount of government interference needed to keep Piggy from becoming King for Life, knocking us down and stealing our eyeglasses. Hayek is especially instructive, as the ur-libertarian.
Hayek (whom Kirk considered to be more conservative than libertarian) noted that we develop rituals, ways of dealing with problems, and social institutions based on hard experience. As you know, if you burn your finger once, you will stop sticking it in the fire. Yet most people out there haven’t had to give themselves a severely burned finger to learn the essential facts about fire. They just take it from other people – usually parents or classmates – that fire burns, and they refrain from sticking their hands in. Likewise, most folks follow the speed limits on the roads. Few of us have been in a near-fatal crash, and nobody reading this has been in a fatal crash; yet we all live by the received wisdom that to drive too fast, is to risk death.
This spontaneous organization, or race consciousness, formed the basic fact of Hayek’s world view. Hayek argued that we do things the way we do them because it works. When somebody builds a better mousetrap, the world generally adopts the new method… but until something is proven to be superior, it is better to stick to the old ways of doing things.
Ultimately, the destruction of social institutions leads to only one thing: tyranny.
The moderating influences in life – churches, tightly knit neighborhoods, charitable foundations like Rotary, the local volunteer firehouse – these things all moderate our behavior and cause us to internalize a behavioral code. This internalized code renders external law unnecessary.
For example, we don’t use the leaf blower at 6:00 AM on a Sunday. It’s not against the law to do so in most places… but it is rude, and we will be met with the informal censure of our neighborhood if we do. So we refrain, and after a while, we don’t bother thinking about the neighbors, or what the preacher might say about doing unto others. We don’t do it simply because we don’t do it, and we needn’t think any more about it. It’s just not the done thing.
But if you break down that neighborhood, break down people’s moral code, teach them to transgress polite codes rather than observe them – well, then you are stuck with a bunch of idiots running their leaf blowers at 6:00 AM. Once that happens… well, there’s only one choice. Draft a law to keep people from running their leaf blowers at 6:00 AM.
From there, you have to ban lawnmowers at 6:00 AM. And chainsaws. And pneumatic impact wrenches. And so forth.
In the absence of polite neighbors, you could draft a law that says “no making a nuisance of yourself before 10:00 AM on Sundays – but our newly liberated lawyers would quickly get this commonsensical law stricken from the books. “Why, your honor, “nuisance” means different things to different people… so how could we presume to legislate such a broad range of behavior with such a nebulous law? Why this law is standardless… so it’s unconstitutionally vague and presumptively invalid.”
Thus a couple principles – politeness, and the common sense of a neighborhood that knows a nuisance when it sees it – are stricken from our lingua franca. This clear cutting of social institutions leaves in its wake an impenetrable thicket of tiny laws, tying us down as Gulliver was tied down by the threads of the Lilliputians.
The example of the leaf blowers sounds a little far fetched. “How could that possibly lead to tyranny?”
Easy. Just substitute “First Amendment free speech” for “blowing leaves.”
It used to be that we couldn’t define pornography, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “I knows it when I sees it.”
Back in the day, if a community wanted to ban porn, it did so. In fact, the community of the United States, through its lawfully elected legislature, did so. We couldn’t tell you what it was, but like the nuisance posed by a rude, idiot neighbor with a leaf blower at 6:00 AM, we knew it when we saw it.
The old institution of regulating decency wasn’t good enough though, for the progressives. Rather than seeking to undo the oppression from over-broad application of censorship laws, they sought to destroy social repression of all types. We’ve now spent the last 50 years breaking down sexual mores, legitimizing illegitimacy, and generally rendering it impossible for a community to monitor and control the public content in its shop windows, restaurants and bars. Rather than going after a vice – overly broad suppression – the progressives attacked the institution of communities policing themselves.
Gee – why couldn’t we have just passed some laws to put the brakes on the Comstockery – why did we have to go to Court and get pro-porno enshrined as one of our timeless values in the law?
This process was repeated over and over again. No slight was small and inconsequential enough to avoid Court scrutiny. So in the place of community-wide standards, we now have an impenetrable thicket of Supreme Court precedent. The general concept of free speech has been destroyed – anything offensive to persons on the ground of race, national origin, religion, disability or several other grounds, is outlawed. Any show of religion in the public square is increasingly outlawed. Yet nudie bars are protected to the full extent of the law, as if they were houses meant to safeguard the Elgin marbles; and political speech is readily banned under the guise of campaign finance reform.
The vice has lived on, but now it oppresses different things. Meanwhile, we progressive folk have pretty much destroyed the original meaning of the First Amendment, and we threaten to burn in effigy anybody who is ballsy enough to try and keep live sex shows out of storefront windows.
In short, in many areas of human endeavor, we’ve chucked out the old restraining systems that kept our behavior in check. This necessitates increased government interference in our lives, to keep us from running amok.
The real downfall of many modern libertarians is that they don’t realize this. They equate increased freedom of action with increased liberty – yet it means no such thing. In the First Amendment context, for example, rather than a fairly clear general rule restraining government (no established religion, freedom of press and political speech), we now have a thicket of rules. The same rulings which were supposed to free us from the old ways, now imprison us in a forest of black letter text.
In tossing out the moral and community standards that restrained us, we’ve freed ourselves us to roll around in the slop… at the cost of our essential liberties. No community is now free to “change the tone”. Ever notice how controversial Rudy Giuliani is for driving the low budget street hookers and sex shops out of Times Square, along with the bums and the violent criminals? Why the hell is that even controversial – he and his cops turned a shithole into a place you can take your family – how is that a bad thing? Our laws to protect civil rights have imposed a layer of regulation on the First Amendment. Instead of imposing censure, social exile and disapproval on bigots, we say we’d die to protect their right to say that, and then offer to die to protect the plaintiff’s right to sue to stop the offending speech. An artist attempting to deal with tough racial or sex issues isn’t really free to talk about it for fear of harassment charges stemming from the mere discussion of controversial issues. And a chaplain running up the stairs at the falling World Trade Center, to comfort dying firemen and policemen, draws the ire of Barry Lynn, of People United for the Separation of Church and State – he’s upset that taxpayer dollars paid that chaplain’s salary.
So why am I going back to the Church?
Well, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I want my child to be prepared to be a good citizen, and a good person. I don’t presume to know whether my faith is the one true faith. It is for me, but as Dennis Miller says, it’s just my opinion; I could be wrong.
What I do know for a fact, however, is that the moral code that the Church teaches is a pretty darn good code that a person can internalize, and use for a general guideline in life. It isn’t perfect – no institution is – but it has withstood the test of time, and a lot of people have followed the rules much to the betterment of their selves, and their communities.
My kid could grow up to be the greatest philosopher ever, and he’d be hard pressed to beat the basic rules that this church (or any traditional church or synagogue in the Judeo-Christian line) teaches. And if he internalizes these rules, well, then he’s got a shot at being a pretty good person, and a pretty good citizen. Maybe, if he’s smart, he can avoid having to learn the hard way everything I learned. Perhaps he can take the received wisdom of others, and stay out of trouble to some extent.
The cat may be out of the bag. As Theodore Dalrymple and Judge Bork have pointed out, once we’ve de-emphasized internal controls and social conformity, and emphasized government rules as the normative influence, we’ve leapt onto a slippery slope.
But I’ll be damned if I slide to the bottom with my kid, and myself, without trying to do something to reverse the trend. I’ve come to realize that the best thing I can do to help fix this statist mess we’re in, is to teach myself and my family and my neighbors to think locally, forget government. A strong moral code, that imposes self-restraint isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s one way of doing it, and it’s a way that has worked over time. So I’m not about to discard the idea lightly.
Funny, but you’d think libertarians would be all about this idea of self-restraint, and person responsibility stuff — I’m really surprised there isn’t a strong fundamentalist christian bent to a lot of libertarians. But they haven’t seemeed to have made the connection yet, between high morals / low government. Oh well, gotta show ’em, one at a time if necessary.
I’m expecting to hear some flames from some of y’all libertarians, and atheists, and of course the usual trolls, if any have read to this point. If so, flame away in the comments section, please. This is a talk we need to have.

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2 comments

  1. Major Sean Bannion

    Hell, and I thought Nock was my own undiscovered secret, right up there with Bastiat.
    Good piece though.

  2. Al Maviva

    You should thank Kim DuToit for the A. J. Nock reference. Interesting choice – a derivative conservative genius, but a genius nonetheless.
    I guess Kirk is derivative too, his genius being very much as the Mead Organizer of conservative thought, putting together the thousand-piece puzzle of Tories and Whigs and Tafts and Hayek. Guys like that are incredibly important – not everyone has the fortitude, time, or reading comprehension skills to sit through a 500 page treatise like Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. People who can give an accurate, readable gloss, are thus very important. Kind of like the guy who can fix your car. He doesn’t need to be able to design the engine – being able to understand it well enough to fix it and help you use it is the vital skill.
    BTW, if you want a copy of The Conservative Mind and don’t have one yet, I’ll be happy to send you one. It’s Conservatism 301, in the same way Road to Serfdom is Libertarianism 101…