By Kyle Scott
When politicians, regulators, and citizens think of how to fix things they generally think in terms of laws. But what if laws were not the answer? What if laws were only necessary but not sufficient for addressing our most pressing problems? Perhaps the problem doesn’t have anything to do with laws but with the people who make them and for whom they are made.
Our faith in laws is rooted in a deeper intellectual tradition that has taken us off path in more areas than politics. The belief in man’s ability to fix what is wrong permeates nearly every area of our lives. But it might be equally likely that the more we tinker and revise the more we mess things up. That is, the problem may be people and our constant meddling with the natural order. Therefore, our refusal to admit that we are flawed and limited in our capacity to effect positive change only worsens the condition. What would help is an injection of humility into the modern psyche; a recognition of our limited capacity to do good. Humility has the ability to rebuild communal bonds as it forces us to give up on centralized state solutions and instead focus on those people immediately around us and to put faith in a force greater than ourselves. My view of humility, as adapted in the remainder of the essay, mirrors Erasumus’ worldview as characterized by Timothy Jackson. “Though Erasmus admitted humanity’s tendency to carnal corruption and lampooned its manifold foolishness, he still believed in the essential goodness of a human nature made in the image of God and in the human ability, with the help of grace, to come into harmony with the divine purposes evident in creation…The Hobbesian contractor, on the otherhand, had to impose order on a chaotic natural world…” (Jackson 1999, 493).
Ron Paul wrote in the Wall Street Journal that, “because they [the Fed] have hundreds of bright economists working for them doing research and collecting data, they buy into the pretense of knowledge—the illusion that because they have all these resources at their fingertips they therefore have the ability to guide the economy as they see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth.” The pretense of knowledge is the key phrase as far as this essay is concerned. I adopt a different phrase with similar implications: the hubris of modernity. The rise of modern political principles, spurred on by the Enlightenment, has led to hubris, hubris to the extent we think we can foresee the consequences of our actions in any and all circumstances. When applied to government this suggests that through the proper reforms we can bring about the results we want. No culture, tradition, or history is exempt. Modernity suggests that all people are susceptible to the same forces and can therefore be governed by the same principles. Centralized government naturally follows.
In this essay I tackle the problem by showing how the cultivation of humility might be able to reverse this trend. If hubris brings about centralization then humility ought to support a justification for decentralization.
Defining Humility in a Contrast with Modernity
Humility recognizes there are forces beyond our control and comprehension—including the course of our lives and our country. Humility, then, is the knowledge of our limitations and shortcomings and it thus forces us to restrict our actions and judgments to conditionals—or hypotheses—rather than absolutes—or definitive statements of fact.
Humility denies what modernity grants, which helps explain why humility has become a lost, or at least denigrated, virtue. Modernity grants “autonomous moral value to human reason and the individual self” and humility asks that we acknowledge our limitations, and the shared limitations of all humans, to solve problems (Button 2005, 844).
And while it is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that modernity is composed of an homogenous group of thinkers and insights, there is consistency among Western intellectuals, and those who study Western intellectual history from outside the West, that some of the commonly recognized intellectual dimensions of modernity—as derived from the Enlightenment—include reason, science, individuality, freedom, self-consciousness, and the subordination of nature to man (Himmelfarb 2005; Staloff 2005; Sen 2009; Yi and Fan 2006). Accordingly, analytic reason is the way to a better life and government can overpower the forces of chance and nature so that desired ends can be achieved with a high level of certainty.
Those who question modernity’s assumptions must also call into question modernity’s attachment to the idea that manmade laws and institutions can take what is nasty and unpredictable about life and turn it into something that can be regulated and controlled. Humility recognizes our limitations in this regard and exposes the logical fallacy in thinking those who need laws are most capable of making them (Howe 1955, 47). “The effect of this process—the progress of reason and freedom associated with the Enlightenment—has been to liberate humanity from traditional constraints…” (Wood 1997, 543).
Modernity does not acknowledge these limitations, however, which means modernity lacks humility. Humility suggests that man is prone to error and when he becomes certain in the path he has chosen, when he has failed to recognize that he is prone to error, his humility is lost and his missteps are likely to become graver. “The natural world, by virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect. Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price, as did Don Juan and Faust” (Keys 2008, 220; quoting V. Havel).
Within modernity nature, chance, and a pre-modern attachment to individual morality and religion are to be taken control of—or replaced by—institutions that are the product of individual choice and deliberation among individuals. To pursue Enlightenment statecraft requires man to place himself above nature, and perhaps God.
Undermining the hubris of modernity is this essay’s central challenge. And no correction of modernity can be achieved without first reorienting the psyche through a consultation with an author who embraced humility.
Lesson in Humility
Mark Twain asked, in Huckleberry Finn in particular, while the war freed the slaves, why did it not successfully integrate freed slaves into society or successfully achieve justice and equality (Schmitz 1971, Sundquist 1988). Going into the war no one thought seriously about what to do with the former slaves if in fact they were freed. The North did not understand how the war would radically alter the structure of the South. Nor did it understand why it would be unable to deal with the aftermath. The reason the North did not see these problems is because it lacked humility. The North gained pride from knowing its opinion held the moral high ground and that its superior industrial might would allow victory. The North did not consider reconstruction, only war. For this reason, Twain was a critic of the war, though not necessarily abolition.
In Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” we see why humility is important. Humility forces us to confront the uncomfortable fact that while we and everyone around us may agree with what is happening, we may in fact be wrong.
Twain’s story begins with an outline of the patriotic fervor that has gripped a town; describing the parades, songs, banners, and services where God is assumed to be on their side. Twain shows the dark underbelly when he shows how dissenters are silenced, but his initial examination of dissent disappears just as quickly as the dissenters are forced to disappear in the story.
The following Sunday, when the troops were to be sent off to fight, Twain brings us inside a church where there are prayers for military victory in which “our” people are protected and the enemy extinguished. The minister asks for the “ever-merciful Father of us all” for help in their mission to “crush the foe,” and he does so with no appeal for a peaceful resolution or sense of irony about asking his merciful Father to aid in killing others. “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag,” ends the long prayer by the minister.
As the prayer ends another man takes the pulpit and the minister steps aside. The man introduces himself as someone sent from God to ask the people if they truly understood what they were asking for; whether they understood the full implications of their prayer. So the man, a self-reported messenger from God, repeated the minister’s prayer as he said God had heard it.
“O Lord our Father… help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”
When finished he was summarily dismissed by all in attendance as a lunatic. It is not stated, but it can be safely assumed that the crowd was unconvinced that their prayer was in error. Twain’s ‘War Prayer’ is important in teaching us to have humility in our foresight, in acknowledging that when we do or say something we are usually unaware of its full implications.
Think now of Lincoln’s commitment to total war and see if any parallels can be drawn, not just in the methods employed, but also in the position that the ends justify the means while not fully understanding or justifying the ends or the means.
Twain’s lesson of humility asks us to be less than certain in our own positions and to moderate our views from the extreme. Moreover, this version of humility asks that we remain open to the insights of others and recognize that we are likely in error in our views to some degree, just as those who oppose us are likely wrong in theirs.
This lesson, and in fact, this method of teaching this lesson is not unique to Twain. Centuries before Twain wrote, Plato wrote a short dialogue now known as Alcibiades II which carried the same sentiment. On this day Socrates caught the young and ambitious Alcibiades on the way to the temple to pray to the gods. Socrates began asking him what he would pray for and why. The point of the inquiry was to uncover whether Alcibiades knew the difference between what was truly good and what only appeared good. When Alcibiades could not make the distinction, Socrates asked him to refrain from prayer until he could. Socrates’ point was that it was better not to pray than to pray unknowingly for something bad. If you could not distinguish between what was right and what only appeared right, then you should refrain from prayer until you can make the distinction. Socrates might suggest that we not pray for military victory until we are certain about what that would entail and whether we find that desirable.
If we act without knowing the difference between the truly good and what only appears good we are just as likely to act bad as we are good, and it also means we are not good when we act good, just lucky. This is compatible with Twain’s position in that Plato asks that we not act on our initial impulses and instead open them up to examination and only act when we have no other choice but to act, or when we have arrived at something true. It is not easy to know when we have arrived at something true, but we know when we have not arrived at something true because we will not question or inquire into its trueness, nor allow others to do so, but we will instead close off all examination of the issue and think anyone who disagrees with our position a lunatic.
Unfortunately, Twain does not give us a governing structure—nor does Plato—as that is not his primary concern. But, that does not mean a governing structure cannot be found consistent with his argument.
Humility and Subsidiarity
The principle of subsidiarity, which serves as one of the first justifications for federalism, as derived from the political theory of Thomas Aquinas, itself incorporates the virtue of humility consistent with that expressed by those cited previously as Aquinas recognizes that salvation can only come through God, and we can only realize that once we humble ourselves.
The concept of subsidiarity is fairly simple as “the basic idea is that each community [family, school, church, club, state, etc.] should be allowed to make its own distinctive contribution to the common good without improper interference from the governing institutions of the other communities” (Aroney 2007, 163). In Encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno par. 79 (1931), Pope Pius XI writes of subsidiarity, “just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”
We see Aquinas articulate a similar idea of what subsidiarity means for lawmaking and governing when he writes that law must “adapt to time and place [and] can be rightly changed on account of the changed condition of man” (Aquinas ST 1a2ae 97.1, see also 1a2ae 104.3 ad. 1.). Implicit in subsidiarity is humility as it stands in stark contrast to the universal-objectivism of the Enlightenment. Subsidiarity acknowledges that no one person or community knows what is best for all communities and should therefore refrain from acting as though they do. If Community X acknowledges that it is no closer to attaining justice than Community Y, then it must also admit that it has no right to enforce its view on Community Y or bring Y under its political control. However, this does not preclude cooperation, or an overarching political order that helps facilitate cooperation between X and Y without infringing upon the ability of X and Y to decide for themselves. If this sounds like federalism it should. “The basic conceptual apparatus for a theory of federalism was at least latent within Aquinas’s legal and political thought…” (Aroney 2007, 165-166).
Federalism is often equated with the ability of sub-national governing units to govern themselves. In the United States this often means that preserving federalism means preserving states’ rights, but this is a narrow view of what federalism can be (Scott 2011; McGinnis and Somin 2004, 89). Federalism does place an emphasis on the ability of sub-national governing units to govern themselves, but it does not grant any level of government sovereignty over the people. To make federalism a state-centered enterprise is to adopt a Hobbesian view of government that federalism—if we understand it to be grounded in humility—opposes. To contrast the federal view with the modern-nation state view is to contrast the view of contract with that of a covenant as put forth by Hobbes and Althusius respectively.
Johannes Althusius was one of the first theorists of federal thought and did so to refute the statist principles promulgated by Jean Bodin and later adopted by Thomas Hobbes. The Althusian covenant, as he describes it in Politica, is communal and communicative as each association communicates its needs with other associations to form a covenant. Each association is bound to that covenant in so far as it provides what it was designed to provide. It is not the larger association that defines the common good, but the constituent members of the association who define the common good. (Althusius 1995: 19, 35, 40, 68-9; see also Scott 2011: Chapter 1)
Associations covenant with other associations which then leads to the creation of larger associations. These associations serve as a link between the individual and the state. As a matter of course, each associating body retains its identity and original authority. It does not give up its ability to decide matters within its sphere when it forms a larger association. A father does not give up being head of household simply because several families come together to form a clan. The reach of the larger association is limited, and only extends to those things that cannot be dealt with by the smaller association alone. Within subsidiarity there is a “principled tendency toward solving problems at the local level and empowering individuals, families and voluntary associations to act more efficaciously in their own lives” (Vischer 2001, 116). This is consistent with the pre-modern (which is to say pre-statist) notion of federalism in so far as “subsidiarity seeks to nourish these intermediate social groups, whether by protecting them from government interference, empowering them through limited government intervention, or coordinating their various pursuits” (Duncan 2006, 67). The presence of humility should also be clear as nowhere within this version of federalism is it acceptable for any one association, even the larger associations, to impose its will or world view on another.
In his New York Times column David Brooks gave a popularized version of how modernity leads to centralization. “American history can be seen as a series of centralizing events…Many liberals have tended to look at this centralizing process as synonymous with modernization—inevitable and proper. As problems like inequality get bigger, government has to become more centralized to deal with them.” While he does not name the causal mechanism, I attribute this development, at least in part; to modernity’s lack of humility in assuming that the answers can be found and that the solutions are universal with no concern for particular customs, traditions, or needs.
A person or institution that lacks humility would not be able to live up to the principles of subsidiarity. The hubristic man, which is to say all modern men who fail to recognize their fallibility or the fallibility of modernity, is incapable of engaging in a dialogue in which he is open to persuasion through reasons given by another. To deliberate one must be open to being persuaded, which means one cannot be conceited, to be so sure of the correctness of one’s own position that one is unwilling to consider an opposing view. When we are certain, and unwilling to deliberate, we may also find the way other people live in need of correction. The conceited person may wish to impose his view on others for their own good. Only a person who is conceited can operate with the conviction necessary to tell other people how they should live. Humility prevents people from acting in this way for it prevents people from being certain that they know what is best for others which then precludes action taken against others against their will.
Within a federal system government actors should follow a similar pattern, such as is seen in subsidiarity. Town A should not impose its will or way of life on Town B without first gaining its consent. Town A, if humble, will recognize what is good for it may not be good for Town B. When the two towns come together to decide the proper course of action they can choose to cooperate or go about their separate ways. At no point would humility permit either town to enforce its will upon the other. Humility allows neighbors who see the world differently, to live differently so long as doing so does not violate the will of the other. The key feature is communication, which Althusius elaborated upon. The towns, just as individuals, must be open to communication and thus deliberation. Action cannot occur without communicating needs and deliberating upon the means to meet those needs.
Mary Keys, one of the few political scientists to see the value of humility, follows a similar line of argument when justifying humility’s role in deliberation. “According to Aquinas, humility is a virtue because, like all properly ethical or moral virtues, it disposes desire or appetite to be guided by the rule of reason…By expelling pride, humility opens up an interior space that God can fill with grace and the ‘infused’ moral virtues” (Keys 2008, 218). In my formulation there is a similar process. Humility demands that we abandon our attachments to conventions and prejudices to be “guided by the rule of reason” and “humility opens up an interior space” that can be filled with right reason. It is in man’s relationship to God that he recognizes his own limitations and fallibility. When man recognizes he can never be as perfect as God is he becomes humble and thus opens himself up to the guidance of the perfect being while continuing to recognize that he will never be perfect.
But we need not demand that people accept God to appreciate the political value of humility or to become humble. Socrates, Dostoevsky, and Twain each show us the political value of humility. Moreover, life experience should be enough to show anyone that they are prone to error. If we can be shamed we can become humble.
Normative Assessment of Federalism
This then brings us back to Twain’s question about why the war was not more successful at integrating the newly freed slaves or in providing liberty and equality. The answer is that the war followed a top down model of reform in which the unique circumstances of the South and of the slaves were not taken into consideration by the North. Instead, there was one ostensible goal by the end of the war which was to free the slaves and defeat the South at all costs. The means were irrelevant, only the end was important.
Unfortunately, the failure of the North’s policy has not been instructive. If it had been, the U.S. would not think rebuilding a nation would be as easy as it did before the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson has gone unlearned because there is no humility in a regime which promulgates the precepts of modernity.
Modernity encourages top-down solutions. Top-down solutions begin with a theory and abstract from that theory policies that are needed to achieve the theory’s goals. Bottom-up solutions begin with the facts then move to the theory. Bottom-up solutions are what can be produced in a federal regime, a regime in which local governing units are given the authority and autonomy to deal with problems unique to them according to their insights and capacities.
The advantages of solutions that follow the federal model is that they are more effective and less disruptive; in addition to being morally superior. And it is a consideration of why federalism is morally superior to unitary regimes that I would like to end this essay. Because unless we settle the normative question, the empirical question of which type of system can do what better has no value.
Federalism is the morally superior alternative to the modern state-centered model because bottom-up solutions acknowledge that patience is necessary and the best change is usually that which comes about not through force but by conversion through persuasion. And conversion through persuasion is a much slower process.
Now, recall the earlier discussion about deliberation and Althusius’ idea of covenant. In a federal regime each association, or subnational governing unit, is thought to know what is best for itself because those who reside within know themselves and their problems better than those on the outside. Therefore, these associations, and the people within, cannot be coerced through some other force to participate in something to which they had not consented.
The virtue of humility adds a layer to the traditional defense of consent for humility requires us to refrain from enforcing our views on others. Humility facilitates the deliberation that consent requires but does not guarantee. When we look at theories of consent they all demand that one agree to what one is bound to do. But no theory of consent sufficiently addresses how one can be convinced or persuaded, or how deliberation can occur. Consent theory fails if it does not provide a mechanism to stop people from hiding in the corner and plugging their ears like a petulant child. Humility can address this deficiency in consent theory by showing people that it is to their benefit to deliberate with others in a way that can facilitate the understanding and growth of each participating member.
A federal system requires the consent of each constituent member before it can take action as a single unified whole. Coercion cannot be done in a federal regime for coercion undermines the principles of federalism. Because federalism precludes coercion, it is morally superior to other types of regimes that permit coercion. However, no institutional or legal checks can keep a government from running roughshod over the people or the constituent members of a regime. Laws and institutional checks can always be overridden, perverted or usurped if the perpetrator has the will and cunning to do so. The cultivation of character, and humility in particular, is far more important to the proper maintenance of a federal regime than is the cultivation of laws and institutions.
In a respect for symmetry I will end by again referencing Mark Twain. In his short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” the people of Hadleyburg take pride in their reputation as incorruptible. This pride ends up being their downfall. Thinking they are all pure and honest they do not see that they need to remain vigilant in the defense of their virtue. Rather, they invite temptation only to fall to it. Their pride was their downfall. Had they been humble in their virtue, and had not believed their own reputation, perhaps the central characters would have gone on to live and the town would have remained incorruptible.
Humility forces us to acknowledge how limited we are in our abilities and our knowledge. Neither of us can be certain in our position, but only enter the arena of deliberation with tentative conclusions that need to be refined and sharpened by openly engaging in, and being receptive to, discussion with opposing arguments.
Federalism, through its foundation in humility, forces those of us who buy into it to not assume we know what is best for others while we may know what is best for ourselves. Our knowledge of what is good for others becomes increasingly limited as the number of people, and the space between people, increases.
Federalism asks that communities be left to govern themselves to the degree to which is appropriate for preserving communal stability and values.
What I have argued in this essay is quite limited in several respects, the primary being that I have not shown in any detail how it can be put into practice. But, what concerns me most is that even a system of subsidiarity cannot guarantee the presence of humility, all it can do is require it. In some respects calling for humility to be present, even if it is required, may be little more than yelling at the wind. Therefore, this essay is not a directive or instruction manual on how to achieve a government based upon consent, but rather it is designed to alert the reader to its needs and propose possible ways in which government can be constructed in accord with the virtue.
To summarize: Humility is a virtue that must be present if consent is to be the mode of decision making. Humility keeps us from imposing our views on others or enforcing our will on them through unethical means. Humility does this by stripping us of the will to do so. If I acknowledge that the best I can say is that I maybe know what is best for me and will act upon what I know pending the introduction of any different ideas which I may find convincing; I cannot tell you what is best for you since I do not and cannot know. The only permissible response from either of us, if we are humble, is to deliberate. This formulation permits action and it permits an open exchange of ideas. As an individual, if I think I have a better idea than you then we get together and discuss it. If I persuade you, great, we undertake the action together—uncertain of course of whether or not it is the best course of action but we came about it through consent. If I don’t persuade you, great, I leave you alone to go about your day. This is what a premodern notion of federalism, as grounded in the idea of subsidarity, would have governments and communities do as well.
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Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University. Kyle has published three books, the most recent being Federalism. His commentary on current events has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com, and dozens of local outlets including the Charlotte Observer, Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun. Contact him at email@example.com; 319 Perkins Library, Duke University, Department of Political Science, Durham, NC 27708; 713.805.0581.