It’s only fitting that I begin this series with the work that marked the beginning for me. I credit C.S. Lewis for my conversion both to orthodoxy and Conservatism.
I used to be, what I shall call for simplicity’s sake, an idealist. I believed that man was naturally good, and that in order to achieve goodness he only needed to be set free from certain institutions. I believed that whatever my personally held moral or religious views were, they had no application concerning society, much less government. I unknowingly, yet all to readily, accepted the materialistic view that government need only concern itself with economics. Like any good Marxist I believed the solution to the problem was economics. Economics could certainly make men better.
Needless to say, this was a dreary worldview to possess and altogether quite empty of answers. Which is why when someone suggested I read The Abolition of Man, the words cut straight to my soul and made me reconsider everything.
Lewis closes the first chapter by observing,
“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self- sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
It would seem that not much has changed. Politicians from both parties speak almost exclusively in the language of economics. One side calls for entrepreneurship and the other for sacrifice, but neither is prepared to do anything to shore up the values that make such entrepreneurship and sacrifice possible.
Lewis argues the reason such virtues are being rendered impossible is that we have abolished any moral foundation for them. Virtue must correspond to an objective reality. You cannot be righteous, Traherne reminds us, unless you “prize things according to their value.” Furthermore, Lewis reminds us of the teaching of St. Augustine that Virtue comes from rendering to objects the proper degree of love appropriate to them.
Of course, this all requires us to believe in an objective moral order by which we may measure such things. Something our modern world finds anathema. Oliver Wendell Holmes exemplifies error of the modern age perfectly when stated, “I happen to prefer champagne to ditchwater, but there is no reason to suppose that the cosmos does.”
Modern examples of laughing at honor and being shocked at the results are abundant. Perhaps the most obvious however, is that after decades of telling young people that their sexual habits need not be restrained, we are appalled when they come to the halls of congress asking the government to pay for it all. For generations we essentially told people that on a personal level, ditchwater was an acceptable substitute for champagne.
Lewis says the solution is found in natural law, or what he referred to as The Tao. The Tao teaches there is an objective good and evil, and an objective right way for men to live. In other words, the cosmos does have an opinion on champagne. Those who attempt to “debunk” the traditional values taught by all the great traditions are unknowingly tearing the humanity out of a man, until he is a mere machine. If all of man’s needs can be satisfied by material and physical consumption then there is nothing separating him from the animals or machines.
Lewis predicted that once economic value is given primacy, “To get people fed and clothed is the great end, and in pursuit of it scruples about justice and good faith may be set aside.” Lewis points out that traditional morality agrees that getting people fed and clothed is a good thing, but that it also teaches justice and good faith. Once separated from each other, how can either stand? It is a belief in justice that compels us to clothe and feed the poor, but if there is no universal standard of such a thing as justice, why should we carry on? The values taught by natural law cannot be separated. If one is valid they are all valid. If one is debunked they are all debunked
Placing economic value above all other leads to absurd results, that when properly considered, no red-blooded human being would seriously consider. Furthermore, this idolatry can be adopted at either end of the political sphere. At first glance, Lewis’ statement makes the mind jump to a Marxist pursuit of social justice that is willing to trample anything to achieve equality. But Republicans can be equally as guilty. For instance, this author at Cato went so far as to advocate for a “Council of Economic Advisors” that would wield powers comparable to that of the Supreme Court. The Council would exist to veto any legislation that is uneconomical.
While I’m all in favor of good economics, it is not and cannot be the final deciding factor of legislative decisions. Imagine a hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast, and the nation is in a budget crisis. Is it economical to pass a relief bill? Suppose the country is brutally attacked by a foreign power, but lacks the finances to raise troops to respond. Is borrowing or raising taxes to respond economical? The answer to both questions is that it simply does not matter. These are questions of compassion and justice. Economics may give an answer satisfactory for a machine, but it won’t give one satisfactory for a human being.
It is amusing, by the way, that such a proposal came from the Cato Institute, for according to Cicero it was the one fault of Cato that he obsessed with the treasury at the expense of justice and the people.
In sum, what can the 21st century Republican Party learn from an Oxford Don who hated politics?
Don’t abandon your pre-political ideals. Economic success is a worthy ideal, but humanity has needs much deeper that economics simply can’t speak to. The just society can’t be built without good people. A monarchy may be good or evil depending on whether the monarch is good or evil. Similarly, a democracy will be a success or failure depending on whether the citizenry is virtuous or not. C.S. Lewis said, “Without good men you cannot have a good society.” Yes, he recognized law cannot make men good, but lets not fool ourselves into believing it doesn’t matter what type of men we have.
In their haste to abandon the “fringe issues that “get in the way” of their economic message, the GOP should at least pause to consider what makes economic freedom possible.
Brian Miller | George Mason University College of Law | @BrianKenMiller