I have a vivid memory from a couple years back when boarding a bus in a Chicago neighborhood. It was after school, and some of the kids were taking public transit home. But the bus was total chaos. Kids are kids no matter where you live, but the sort of out of control behavior on the bus was telling. So was the response of the people on the bus, including myself. We sat there and didn’t do a thing. Many of these kids will return home from school with no parents present. Many of them will hang out with friends or at parks or run the streets after school with no sense of structure or order besides their own whims and guided by the wisdom of their peers. I won’t indulge in the conservative nostalgia for the pristine past where families were intact, in part because I don’t think that past really existed in the way we imagine, but my experience of watching these children and teenagers brought to my mind the fundamental metaphor that many conservatives and Christians take as the basic moral problem society faces: chaos.
At any and every corner of personal and social life, the primary threat to human flourishing is the disordering of the human soul and social relations into self-centered, individualistic, indulgent, narcissistic, idealistic, prideful, tribal, or sentimental factions. Chaos is a cancer that manifests itself within the soul of the individual and social relations when order disintegrates. Our desires become our masters, and with desires as numerous as the hairs on our heads we are pulled in a thousand different directions. St Augustine, better than anyone else in Western history, provides the essential account of the human person as an uncontrollable bundle of desires that cannot be properly reigned in and realigned outside of the grace of God.
When it comes to political community, it is preferable to have a dictator than anarchy. Likewise, oppression is a less bad problem to have than disintegration into disorder. Hobbes’ basic intuition about the terrible state of the “war of all against all” seems essentially right. The goal of foreign affairs, then, is about facilitating order among nations in ways that keeps chaos at bay, produces a modicum of justice and equitable relations, while not giving into a naïve idealism or brutal realism. The moral imperative must be helping to keep at bay the more destructive elements of political communities and their leaders, meaning that we must stay involved and must be pro-active in our engagements with the world.
Helping nations to build basic infrastructure, political institutions, and civil society are goals worth pursuing because they foster the resources for nation-states to maintain peace and order within and without their boarders. International relations is the most complex and confounding of political arts because so much is out of our control and beyond our comprehension. If domestic politics seems quite intractable, then international politics with peoples and cultures that often share little of our basic convictions will be even more mystifying. But that is not a reason to give up or retreat, however tempting that may be. The post-World War II order that America lead in constructing ushered in an era of unprecedented stability and prosperity for many nations. It was not perfect, but the blueprint was the right one.
There is a long pedigree of thinking on this point that stresses order, law, virtue, tradition, family, and religion as the essential building blocks of a peaceful and well-ordered society. Edmund Burke provides the modern canonical text in his powerful and eloquent Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke contrasts the radical propensity towards abstract and revolutionary politics with a politics bound by the traditions and history of a people. One believes people are malleable and society elastic; the other emphasizes limitation of our knowledge and finite, fragile, and natural structure of human life. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s latest book Our Kids makes similar points through portraying the effects that the fraying of social bonds and broken families have had on children and the broader society.
Liberals, and Libertarians for that matter, often point to the problem of oppression or domination as the basic problem of human society. In this respect, they are more in line with the classical Liberal tradition. Think of the recent issues and movements that have animated the political left—Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, Occupy Wall Street. The writings of Ta-Nehesi Coates are instructive if we see them as articulating a basic moral intuition of the contemporary left: the human person is being oppressed and constrained from living a free and full life. Politics is about liberating the individual from these forces.
These basically different moral intuitions and metaphors go a long way towards explaining the fundamental differences politicians and the general public have on various political and moral questions. If your basic moral concern is to restrict chaos, morally and socially, you will be less likely to think legalizing drugs or physician assisted suicide is a good idea or letting the current conflagration in the Middle East run its course. On the other hand, if you view oppression as the primary problem, you will be reluctant to send your soldiers overseas to stick their nose where it doesn’t belong or to tell other people they shouldn’t shoot up on heroin or to tell doctors they can’t prescribe life-ending drugs to patients with terminal illness.
Politics, however, is a blunt instrument and is not equipped to get to the fundamental root of our human condition or these moral disagreements. The writer of Proverbs tells us the purposes of the human heart are deep waters, and social policy cannot plum that depth. That is the purview of God and religious community. The deep reordering of our disordered souls and society come about through the slow reorienting power of the Spirit in our hearts, relationships, and communities. But the redemption of the individual and society is ever only an ongoing project, so politics is ever only a shadow of that perfect righteousness that shall be manifested when “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: During the Vancouver Riots in June 2011 after the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Photo by Elopde, via Wikimedia Commons.