God’s Economy

This is a precis of the author’s book God’s Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

New York City, New York. “The transition of an oppressed nation to democracy,” proclaimed the French First Republic’s Committee of Public Safety, created in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, “is like the effort by which nature arose from nothingness to existence. You must entirely refashion a people whom you wish to make free, destroy its prejudices, alter its habits, limit its necessities, root up its vices, purify its desires.” With their vision of an almost plastic human nature, purifiable in the cause of creating a new society, these extraordinary lines were a focal point for Robert Nisbet’s assessment of revolutionary liberalism in his masterwork The Quest for Community. Nisbet also marveled at the French revolutionaries’ fury toward traditional forms of association and loyalty, with their desire, instead, for a new social order based on “free conventions between individual and individual,” as Turgot had put it a decade earlier. This was “one of the most explosive outbursts of individualism in the whole history of the world,” Nisbet concluded.

The most enduring French conservatives of the first half of the nineteenth century, men like Bonald, Lamennais, and Tocqueville, did not simply fear anarchy from the principles of 1789, of course. Rather, the far greater threat posed by liberal individualism, they saw, lay in the new forms of centralized, generalized power and authority that would  necessarily arise as universal natural rights supplanted localized order, corporative regulation, and diverse forms of law. Tocqueville’s famously prophetic lines about the rise of an “immense and tutelary power” over the newly individualized masses in Democracy in America set the terms for this dialectical understanding of the political dangers of liberal individualism. But more than Tocqueville, in a manner closer to the more religious thinkers Bonald and Lamennais, Nisbet later stressed how this paradox of liberal tyranny–”militant libertarianism” within society giving rise to a powerful new monistic state—depended on, indeed grew out of, the destruction or limitation of all competing forms of association and all other sources of lawful obligation, from the Church in its multiplicity of offices, orders, and public missions, to the craft guilds and journeymens’ compagnonnages, to the most basic and prevalent social structures of the rural majority—the peasant commune, family property, and even the nuclear family itself. This “social pluralist” critique, as Nisbet termed it, emphasized how “the state becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotions.”

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