Lockdowns, Mandates, and Conservatives: Remembering the Good of Government

R. J. Snell
October 5, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Don't write while angry.

That's good advice and, if followed, would likely go some distance in turning down the volume and the insulting nature of much political commentary. It's also something I've repeated to myself on multiple occasions these last weeks and months, particularly when elected officials hector citizens of a republic.

Like everyone, I have my judgments about how we've responded to COVID, and, like everyone, I think my judgments about masks and vaccines and quarantines and so on are informed, sensible, considered, and prudent. I'm also aware that my judgments contradict those of friends and family members, many of whom I think are eminently sensible people. A group of my closest friends, for instance, has been waging a scorched-earth battle about vaccines against each other (via private texts) that shows little sign of resulting in consensus, even as the disputants appeal to good evidence for their respective views.

Good people, sound people, prudent people sometimes disagree in ways that don't allow for an obvious resolution. Insofar as they have their evidence and reasons, they may be within their epistemic rights to maintain their positions, for they have kept their responsibility to be informed, attentive, intelligent, and reasonable, even as they arrive at quite disparate conclusions.

Governed, Not Ruled

Now, I take it as a basic principle of the republican form of life that we citizens are governed but not ruled , that the people are sovereign even as our representatives act on our behalf. But public servants do not rule us, even though we are duty-bound to obey the law and follow any and all just laws, even those with which we disagree. That's how the republic works: I bind myself to the rule of law, but, of course, remain free to change the law through the normal means of public debate, persuasion, elections, and so forth. I'm bound to the law, but my representatives are irrevocably duty-bound to the rule of law as well, and it is not men but law that governs. No representative, no mayor, no senator, no president rules me.

It concerns me, then, to observe slippages into what I take to be anti-republican sensibilities, even when mostly unimportant and innocuous. For instance, I think it high time that the State of the Union address be cancelled, not only as pointless and insufferably saccharine, but as anti-republican. It's unseemly to see the representatives of a free people mindlessly applaud. So, too, I dislike the idea that former office holders maintain titles after their service is done - Madam Secretary or Mr. President should end when a term ends, reverting to the normal appellation of one's own surname, which for free people is noble enough.

But these are irritants, no more. Beyond irritation, as a cause of anger, has been the tone and content of elected officials hectoring citizens as if they're subjects . Consider Mayor de Blasio of New York City, claiming that New Yorkers might respond best to "carrot and stick" to move them to "do the right thing" and get vaccinated. No, sorry, Mr. Mayor, there are no sticks used against law-abiding republican citizens. What a misunderstanding of his role.

So, too, when President Biden demeaned the vaccine-hesitant, stating, "We've been patient. But our patience is wearing thin." In a republic, our elected officials are compelled to be patient, have no other alternative than to be patient, for they do not command us. As a private person, I can be as patient or impatient as I wish about those who refuse the jab, or get it. I can be annoyed, angry; I can argue, I have the right to be unpleasant, but the president, as president, backed with the coercive power of the state, is not so entitled. How dare he?

The Individualist Temptation

These have been the sort of angry thoughts I've entertained. Not particularly illuminating, I admit, and it's for the best that I didn't write when all in a lather about them. They have been the occasion, however, to consider again my sense of the role and function of government, assisted by the revised edition of Roger Scruton's Confessions of a Heretic , introduced by Douglas Murray, released by Notting Hill Editions (in a hardcover one is all but compelled to describe as "handsome").

Throughout these two years of COVID, I've found myself alternating between an exasperation over the failure of many Americans to see themselves united in a common project with a common good, viewing themselves as primarily individual, responsible to and for no one other than themselves, and a horror of statism, citizens under the thumb of Leviathan and the safety state. That latter mood is evident in my distaste at de Blasio and Biden above - citizens decide for the common good, they are not cajoled or threatened or pushed into it, and free citizens, sometimes for good reasons, disagree. And they don't require anyone's permission to disagree - I'll think whatever I want, whenever I want, and I won't check with my representatives first. That's just not how this works, and I don't request anyone's patience.

Given the overreach of government, and perhaps especially given the failure of so many elected officials to remember that they do not rule us, it's all too easy to slip into libertarianism by default, to gravitate to the sovereign individual (rather than the responsible citizen, and duty-bound person) as the starting point of political thought. I see the tendency in my own cantankerous spirit in the previous paragraph. Still, it's a mistake, and Scruton is peerless in articulating a better way.

As Scruton reminds us, while we are not incorrect to resist "too much government" or "a political class that can escape from accountability," it is not true that our theory of government should start in negation. Many 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 . . . they seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation."

Scruton is surely right that however much we may appeal to natural rights, there is no state of nature, and even if there were, in such a state there are no meaningful rights. In the state of nature, there are not even individuals in the sense of moral agents, for "the human individual is a social construct; . . . the emergence of the individual in the course of history is part of what distinguishes our civilisation." For the individual to effectually possess rights, rather than a merely theoretical abstraction, institutions must secure (not grant) and extend the responsibilities and rights proper to human nature. Freedom is natural to us, in the sense of fitting what we are and what we exist for. But we do not discover humans with freedom in a pre-political or non-political condition. Rousseau is as wrong about this as is Ayn Rand, and we should flirt with neither.

Given the overreach of government, it's all too easy to slip into libertarianism by default, to gravitate to the sovereign individual (rather than the responsible citizen, and duty-bound person) as the starting point of political thought.

Freedom's Obligations

We are social by nature, and we associate with others when we enter into relations of accountability. We promise things to each other, we have mutual obligations to and for each other, sometimes by the sheer accident of blood or location. I owe my children what I do not owe yours, and I owe my neighbor what you do not, at least in certain respects. When these obligations are not met, or are violated, we call each other to account to justify our action or inaction. Such accountability can be reasonable or an exploitation, Scruton suggests.

If we are to have freedom in our associations, and freedom to keep our responsibilities, and to do so in fully human ways, government is needed; it emerges from our "disposition to hold each other to account for what we do." Freedom, in any meaningful sense, is not the absence of responsibility - an empty and undifferentiated liberty. Rather, it is the safeguarding of our ability to keep our obligations, and to keep those obligations through our own agency, through exercising our due rights. A child grows in freedom as she becomes more able to responsibly keep her obligations. A free citizen does something analogous.

Government, thus, is not "imposed from outside," is not alien or unnatural to our condition and needs, but emerges from the community's associations, affections, bonds, and mutual sense of self-responsibility, which includes the responsibility to be held to account. No one could rightly be said to value freedom who means the freedom to do wrong without interference or correction; such a claim would misunderstand freedom almost entirely.

Law is an articulation of reason, affection, and responsibility entirely internal to us, facilitating coordination unlikely or impossible for the solitary animal.

Government is natural to us, and stems from our own disposition to freely act and freely exert our agency. The free citizen does not lose agency when governed, for law is not alien or external. It is an articulation of reason, affection, and responsibility entirely internal to us, facilitating coordination unlikely or impossible for the solitary animal.

We cannot, thus, reasonably wish to be free from government, Scruton claims; instead, sound government "embodies all that we surrender to our neighbors, when we join with them as a nation." Conservatives are not wrong to reject the model of government as "redistributive machine," not wrong to oppose arbitrary law as tyrannical, not wrong to protest government that goes beyond its bounds - especially when such government forgets that it exists of, by, and for the people. (How absurd when law exempts representatives or federal employees from requirements placed on others, for example.)

I'm skeptical of the government overreach in evidence these last two years, and I'm more than skeptical about the patronizing and dismissive attitudes by some officials about their fellow citizens - sticks and patience, indeed. Still, too many conservatives have become libertarian, and the "I'll do what I want" attitude prevalent among many these last months is a false version of freedom. Citizens exercise not mere agency; they exercise responsible agency, moral agency, and we do well to welcome the great and natural good that is a small, limited, but strong government.

Free people often disagree, sometimes quite strongly, but they are always accountable for their actions. There is no right to be irresponsible or unaccountable. We might be angry about bad government - I know I am - but it would be madness to conclude that government is essentially bad. Conservatives need to be more responsible than this.