The members of a civil association are joined together by, not a common purpose or shared vision of the good, but a shared “interest” in the preservation of the laws that compose their association. Laws, as opposed to orders, commands, or policies, do not tell citizens what to do. Rather, they tell citizens how they must avoid acting regardless of what they choose to do.
For example, the law doesn’t tell us that we must or mustn’t have sex. What it tells us is that if we choose to have sex, then we are forbidden from doing so coercively. The law forbids rape. Similarly, the law doesn’t instruct us to kill or refrain from killing. It does, though, inform us that if we kill, we cannot do so murderously.
In a civil association, there is liberty, for citizens are engaged in the pursuit of their self-chosen ends—not some grand plan prescribed to them by their government.
Conservatives have traditionally favored the reading of the state as a civil association.
In an enterprise association, individuality is subordinated to the common purpose of the association, a purpose in the pursuit of which the government takes the lead. As Oakeshott explains, each person is cast into the role of a servant to the goal or goals for the sake of which the association is held to exist. “Redistributive justice,” “social justice,” “economic equality,” and the like are the standard goals or purposes that we hear most about today.
It is precisely because conservatives have staunchly rejected this understanding of a state that they’ve been extremely reluctant to embark upon war, for never is civil association more in peril than when a state is at war. It is during war that everyone is expected to “sacrifice”—i.e. part with their liberty, their time, labor, wealth, and even their very lives—for the sake of “the common good” of “victory.” That collectivists home and abroad are well aware of this explains why they are forever seeking to assimilate their pet domestic policies to the language and imagery of war: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, etc.
Self-avowed conservatives must take all of this to head and heart as they contemplate interjecting their country into but another Middle Eastern country.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.