Moral, Ethical Governance

No theory of government could be more insistent than liberalism that government must be morally neutral, and not choose between different versions of the “good life.” And no form of government is more perpetually frenzied by moral panics than liberalism. The contradiction in the liberal stance is obvious at first sight, has been often pointed out, and need not detain us too long. If your theory of government is that the government is to remain neutral between different versions of the good life, then the full fury of that government must be brought to bear on whomever would put forth their practice of the good life as superior to others. Now, in a certain sense, everyone does this, making liberalism especially incoherent on this point—even your live and let live guy is presenting living and letting live as a superior version of the good life to be protected by the state over others, with its own privileged attitudes, legal regime, and so on. But the real force of the liberal argument is against a state religion, since that provides for the most systematic imposition of a notion of the good life, so the state religion of liberalism is the transgression of all religions that would purport, even gently, even tacitly, to represent the good life, while the state theology of liberalism is to find a state religion lurking in the doctrine and even daily habits of your political enemies.

But liberalism’s frenzied anti-moral moralism has made the consideration of some very simple and basic questions almost impossible. Could anyone deny that the ruler or the state could act in ways that tend to make its subjects better people? At the very least we should be able to get some agreement that it could make its subjects worse people—by compelling them to engage in vicious acts, for example. And if it can make them worse it can make them better. Shouldn’t it be doing that, then? At this point in the conversation, the liberal, at any point on the spectrum, from libertarian or American conservative to Antifa communist, is hurling nasty epithets at you. You are getting called totalitarian, authoritarian, socialist, communist; you are being told that “this” didn’t work in a long list of places, you are being asked “who are you to say…,” etc. In other words, you are being dragged into a LARPing of WWII and the Cold War. Not a single liberal has ever genuinely scrubbed the idea of the state as the “night watchman” out of his head, or failed to add all of the state enemies of the past century to the list of examples of violations of this norm.

In some recent posts I have laid the groundwork for addressing this issue. From my discussion of morality in “Fraud and Force,” we could say that responsible parties should establish institutions that extract from a situation in which some violent centering is possible the facts of the situation and the mode and degree of responsibility of all involved, freed from the logic of the vendetta. This institutions can be local, private, even “vigilante” ones—the point is not proceduralism, but disciplinary spaces where authoritative individuals are entrusted with search for the truth, the best remedy, and the preservation of the peace and cohesion of the community—since these different aims can be at odds in some cases, those entrusted to arrive at coherent decisions are given a great deal of leeway—if they are to be judged, it is to be after the fact, and with an eye toward improving the system. Those entrusted, to be more precise, must be those willing to draw some of the violent centering toward themselves, if necessary. Furthermore, we can say that the government has an interest in every individual having opportunities to reduce the “meaning gap” I identified between “speaker’s meaning” and “sentence’s meaning,” between the way one sees oneself and all the ways one is seen by others. Does this mean the government must guarantee to everyone a meaningful life?, interjects the fuming liberal. First of all, it means the government wishes to see the entirety of the social order bound up in disciplinary spaces, or what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices,” in which forms of human excellence are made possible, even created, by constrained, systematic and cooperative activities. Finally, what binds these moral and ethical imperatives together is the existence, discussed in “Way, Way, After Sacral Kingship,” of a similar gap in the issuance of any imperative—a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed and enacted, always under conditions not completely accounted for by the “imperator.”

Moral, ethical governance involves protecting existing practices and disciplines, helping them to become more practice-like and disciplinary, and providing the conditions for other activities to become practices and disciplines. The simplest way of doing this is by establishing constraints to be adhered to by any organization or institution incorporated by the government, which is to say any organization or institution. These constraints would range from institution specific to society-wide; from purposeful and efficiency-oriented to aesthetic and even arbitrary. All buildings, or all buildings of a certain kind, might be required to include a particular design; how they have to include it might be loosely or tightly prescribed (some may have it prominently exposed, others may hide it in some corner). Of course, similar to the safety regulations in modern societies, all buildings might be required to be prepared for fires or other emergencies, but it’s important that “regulation” not be solely functional. There need to be some constraints that are devised through collaboration with representatives of the institution itself, but others must solicit the contributions of surrounding and interconnected institutions, while yet others must be the government imposing the stamp of the social order itself on all institutions. There has to be a game-like or play-like structure to these meta-constraints, because otherwise the government is reduced to liberal utilitarianism, leaving itself to be assailed constantly for providing less than maximum happiness for the greater number, rather than interwoven into the entire social fabric as the guiding thread.

Rather than public discourse getting obsessed with rights, needs, inequalities, inequities, etc., it would always be framed by discussions of the state of constraint. More important than whether injustices are allowed in or committed by a particular institution is addressing the anomalous nature of rule. Any system must have it anomalies, because any system must have some element within it that is simultaneously outside of it and therefore can’t be completely assimilated to the terms of the system itself. More precisely, the founding, or chartering, element of the system is anomalous insofar as it judges everything else within the system but can itself be judged, indeed, is judged, at least tacitly, by every action taken within that system. This is the permanent anomaly of any system—the incommensurability of responsibility and power that can be minimized (the discipline and practice of government is concerned with nothing more than minimizing it) but can never be abolished. You can’t know whether someone can do something until he tries to do it, and once he gets started it will become something at least a bit different than he set out to do. The purpose of constraints is to “thematize” the anomalous inside/outside position of the one in charge, so that any judgment assumes he is intrinsically part of the game, and not an imposition on some spontaneous order.

This anomaly pervades all systems, right up to the top, and it must be faced, because any attempt to abolish this anomaly will merely be an attempt to conceal it under some procedural “plug.” So, there must be an inviolability granted to those in charge—to put it simply, someone charged with doing or running some collaborative effort must be given every benefit of the doubt by everyone he must ask to help him do it. This may mean making the wildest excuses for the most evident failures, anticipating failures based on the ruler’s previous performances and trying to prevent and minimize them in advance without attempting to take any credit that would reflect discredit on the ruler. Any possible judgment is displaced onto the implementation of imperatives in such a way as to reconcile whenever necessary their authoritative source with their benefit to the institution. The supreme ruler, we may assume, has agents in every institution providing him with accurate information regarding the performance of his subordinates; moral and ethical participation in an institution means being simultaneously ready to become such an agent upon request and never acting like one unless requested. To arrogate to oneself such a position is to point fingers outside of any established framework, i.e., it is to violently centralize others; it is also to try and control the meanings one gives off, rather than allowing one’s practice to speak for itself, to ramify among the responses of others. In other words, it is immoral and unethical upon the terms laid out in “Fraud and Force.”

Installing this inviolability confronts what may be the most pernicious and tenacious element of modernity. Rene Girard, in his account of mimetic desire, distinguishes between “external” and “internal” mediation. In external mediation, the model one (along with others) imitates is outside of the system, and therefore beyond reach of any rivalrous claims. Obvious examples here would be gods and kings, but it would include any model separated by a formalized distinction from his imitators, such as a member of a higher class or caste—one peasant cannot compete with another to become a noble. With internal mediation, our models are not fundamentally different from ourselves, which means there are no limits to competition, and no established models that could put an end to it. Girard argues that with modernity, external mediation has been completely replaced by internal. My argument here implies the need, in the face of deeply entrenched commitments to internal mediation, to restore external mediation. The responsibility of the ruler, sane, moral and ethical government, requires placing certain people, in certain positions, beyond criticism. (In an interesting discussion, in the wake of the Michael Jackson trial which, following the O.J. Simpson trial, raised the question of whether it was possible to convict a celebrity of a crime, Eric Gans contended that the modern celebrity system serves a purpose similar to external mediation—but in democratic, liberal market terms, that can only have whatever effectiveness it does precisely because celebrities aren’t really responsible for anything.)

What this renewed external mediation might look like must remain an open question. It’s hard to imagine saying that this individual, who is now being appointed school principal, cannot be criticized—even though, yesterday, when he was a teacher, he could be mocked ruthlessly, and once he steps down he can be endlessly attacked for his decisions as principal. (In highly functional organizations and enterprises, things do work this way, so it may be possible to have a social order as whole do so as well, eventually—but even then we could never assume this to be the case once and for all.) In other words, some kind of aura would presumably have to surround the individual preceding and following his tenure in a particular position. In other words, the recreation of external mediation seems to imply the establishment of something like permanent class or status distinctions. The model of rule I am proposing is to a great extent a “team” model—someone who wants to get something done appoints someone he knows is best able to do it, and that person in turn assembles a team of the best he can find—who will be absolutely loyal to him because they also want the job done and they know he is the best person to lead them; while he, in turn, knows that since they are “on board,” he barely has to issue them orders, much less boss them around. All organizations and institutions approximate this model as best they can. Now, families are also teams, as are neighborhoods and towns, and these kinds of teams, if they attain leadership positions, will make it part of the game to continue to deserve it. We have never, in fact, had any kind of society in which family names didn’t mean something, and that’s in large part because in any society families can and do invest a great deal of energy into ensuring they do. A genuine aristocracy would probably have to be landed, but an absolutist order would have to at least be at ease with informal aristocracies, which get formalized in various provisional ways (the ruler might give a particular family firm an established position in some industry, or establish a university under the aegis of an especially accomplished academic family). Members of such families would then have a kind of penumbra of inviolability, a benefit of the doubt, before entering the specific positions where they will really need it. Needless to say, preserving the positions of such families once they have entered decline would allow the institution in question to be pervaded by practices and disciplines incompatible with its own. In the end, we can never outrun the anomaly, or the paradox of power, but it can be made generative: the study of the temporality of imperatives (at what point have they actually been obeyed or disobeyed?) feed back to those issuing imperatives, helping them to defer, hopefully indefinitely, the becoming crisis of the anomaly.

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