Erica Wanis

And here's where I've begun to see a problem. On both the Right and the Left, the perpetual tendency is to place the mantle of blame on specific, iconic bogeymen. For the Right, of course, the root of all evil and dysfunction in Washington lies with President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder and their ideological ilk. On the Left it's "Wall Street," the infamous Koch brothers, Fox News, and pretty much anything "big," e.g. Big Business, Big Oil, Big Pharma, etc. And of course Dick Cheney. Always Dick Cheney.

"If we could just neutralize these influences and infuse the system with people who think like us," goes the sentiment, "everything would be okay. Government would be ethical and society would be just. Prosperity and equity would reign and America would finally live up to the promise of her founding ideals."

Would that this were true, but it's not. The entire government could be taken over by an ideological majority of one stripe or another and it's quite likely that ultimately very little would change. This is because it's not Progressive people or Conservative people or Libertarian people that are the problem, per se, but people in general. People are the problem, and Power is the problem.

I capitalize the word Power in tribute to French philospher Bertrand de Jouvenel, who wrote his seminal work, On Power, as World War II raged. For Jouvenel, Power is not merely a tool used to achieve an objective, but a self-serving force that seeks first and foremost to aggrandize itself. Power seeks above all else, more power for its own sake. This maxim has been true in all times and in all places but has been allowed to flourish with particular vigor, suggests Jouvenel, under the mantle of democratic liberalism. Mark Mitchell, professor of Political Theory at Patrick Henry College and editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic (a website "dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism") articulates well Jouvenel's insights into the seemingly intractable relationship between power and the modern nation state:

The social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau argued that sovereignty originally resides in individuals who are absolutely free and equal in a state of nature. People freely cede their rights to the sovereign in order to gain the benefits of civil and political order. But in a regime based on popular sovereignty, there is little distrust of Power, for Power is wielded by the people, and no one would oppress himself. The limits that were placed on Power in the Medieval world were seen as superfluous in the new age of rule by the people, but this cavalier attitude toward Power is the very thing that leads Jouvenel to claim that democracy "paves the way for tyranny."

Jouvenel sees the modern nation state as the ideal vehicle for carrying the consolidation of Power forward to new heights. And herein lies a profound criticism of liberalism, itself, for the state has steadily eroded the social powers that could stand against it and in so doing limit it. This process has been cheered on by the people who, in seeking liberation from all social power, unintentionally encouraged the nation state’s corrosive work.

Jouvenel argues that only those capable of fighting Power will enjoy any semblance of political liberty. He suggests that Power must be countered by "make-weights," alternative centers of power that resist consolidation. The separation of powers described by Madison in Federalist 51 is an example of an institutional mechanism established to oppose the expansion of power, yet the steady growth of power since the Founding suggests that this mechanism alone is insufficient.

If Jouvenel is correct, authentic, ordered human liberty and the social flourishing that should flow from it has been and continues to be subverted by the very system design to sustain and advance it. The innate hubris that undergirds democratic liberalism provides ideal fodder for the endless growth and consolidation of power under the guise of popular sovereignty.

So what are we to do? This is where St. Paul's wise advice to the church is Ephesus resonates. "Set your heart on things above..." Jouvenel theorized that Divine law was one of the only things that was able to check the scope of Power in pre-liberal societies, since everyone and everything was subject to its authority and – theoretically, anyway – humbled by it. More from Mitchell:

Ambulatory (i.e. arbitrary) law and popular sovereignty are ultimately rooted in the same impulse, for the denial of a divine law and the rise of democratic absolutism both depend on a profound skepticism about any limits that are not self-willed, and, of course, self-imposed limits (bereft of any sense of a higher law) are fragile reeds upon which to build a political order. Ultimately, the only viable alternative to popular sovereignty is the acknowledgement of a divine authority. Law rooted in popular sovereignty is necessarily ambulatory, while law tied to a divine order is, at least conceptually, stable.

Mitchell seems skeptical, as am I, of the likelihood of divine law reemerging as an ordering, limiting influence upon contemporary society, for the modern doctrines of self-determination and moral relativism are potent and seductive. For the faithful remnant that does acknowledge a divine authority, however, the humility that flows from our belief in the Fall should inform our attitude towards political ideology. Man is, indeed, a political animal. We are also inherently prideful, and greedy, and selfish, and self-serving. This is not to say that good men with good intentions shouldn't join together in pursuit of the common good, and that individuals shouldn't support elected officials who represent their principles and views. We simply must be realistic about the limits of politics and the deceptive power of ideology.

Instead of placing our hope in a politician or political program to deliver us from the evils of this world, we should focus our eyes on the eternal, and on the people and things that are right in front of us. It's quite possible that a nation full of individuals committed to doing good and being good in their homes, communities, and in the eyes of their God would make more of an impact than any politician's grand plans for national transformation.

Erica Wanis

Erica Wanis is a consultant for the John Jay Institute's Center for a Just Society. She resides in Leesburg, VA, with her husband and son.