“There is, indeed, as he says elsewhere, “an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups.” To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group.”
~ F.A. Hayek
This is not an idea originating with Hayek or Niebuhr (the incised quote is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society) – many philosophers have noted that often the greatest evils are done under the guise of “improving” the condition of mankind.
There are a number of people on both the left of American politics decrying the “nationalism” of the Donald Trump agenda. The left reads Trump’s words as if they were the expressions of the evils of Nazism, even going so far as to draw direct correlations between Trump’s policies and those of Adolph Hitler. In and of itself, when nationalism is expressed as patriotism it is a positive force for a country. There is no doubt that pride in one’s country and the confidence stemming from it is a positive and unifying force. The fact is that Trump is not a nationalist by any traditional definition, his campaign is based on an extreme form of patriotism – but there is a dangerous aspect to it.
As has been with the misidentification of “fascism” as an exclusively right wing ideology, it is important to recognize that nationalism has far closer ties to socialism than it does classic liberalism (sometimes identified in contemporary America as “conservatism”). Hayek further notes:
“I have quoted at length these passages, which would not surprise one in a description of the German ancestors of national socialism, because they provide so characteristic an example of that glorification of power which easily leads from socialism to nationalism and which profoundly affects the ethical views of all collectivists.
So far as the rights of small nations are concerned, Marx and Engels were little better than most other consistent collectivists, and the views occasionally expressed about Czechs or Poles resemble those of contemporary National Socialists.”
Again, Hayek identifies a truth ignored by those on the political left of our times – the
Nazis were national socialists, not merely nationalists or socialists. One might ask if there is a real difference or it is a distinction without a difference and that would be a valid question. Hayek’s notion quoted at the head of this article encapsulates the justifiable fear of nationalism as it intersects with socialism and these two forces combine to form the governing philosophy of nations. Since it is inarguable that the planning anticipated in socialism requires the absolute power of authoritarianism (and for the purposes of this writing, I define authoritarianism as the precursor to totalitarianism), I would propose that authoritarianism is the one catalyst that transmogrifies socialism and nationalism into national socialism. It makes sense to view these as three heads attached to the same body, a tyrannical hydra of sorts (obligatory Captain America reference!).
Hayek along with others have noted that under collectivist systems, any setting out to plan the economic life of any nation will soon be confronted with clashes between what is morally right and that which furthers the plan. At that instance, the planner/leader has the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the authoritarian will soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. Since the very premise of collectivism is “the plan”, leadership will readily abandon any semblance of morality – or substitute state dictates for any moral value system. The true collectivist must be willing to abandon any individual notion of morality because there can exist only efforts directed toward the success of “the plan” (and that “plan” is ultimately identified with, and personified by, the leadership at the pinnacle of government). They must literally be willing to commit and justify any act, including acts that would torture the minds and souls of a truly moral people. Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s Holodomor (the state induced famine in Ukraine) and Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” are prime examples.
If you ever wonder why the serial malfeasance of political “leaders” like Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Lois Lerner, Eric Holder and others in contemporary Democrat administrations is justified by their supporters and go unpunished, this is why. In no way am I asserting a moral equivalence between these people and the three demons referred to in the prior paragraph, but even a casual observer will note the commonality in this group of “failing up” when a certain ideology is supported. This the very reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more “successful” in a society tending toward authoritarianism.
Historian Robert Conquest proposed that any organization not expressly right wing will eventually become left wing and it does seem that collectivism has become so pervasive in modern times that no matter how many times it fails; it still has a seductive attraction. It appeals to the worst in men, it appeals to both the envious and those seeking power to cure their envy (or presumably to cure the envy of others). As Professor Hayek also noted, “There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of totalitarian systems are not accidental byproducts but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain to sooner or later produce.”
Whatever your personal beliefs, it is intellectually dishonest to ignore that religion and morality are the basis for the creation of America and that religion and morality draws heavily on Christianity and Christianity tenets. America’s very founding principles are based on the idea that our rights do not come from the state, as Thomas Jefferson put it. our rights come from “Nature and Nature’s God.” In every historical case, the substitution of state morality for true morality based on Divine morality has resulted in a total inability for mortal men to discern right from wrong and good from evil – and in every one of these cases, the result was not good – it was pure evil, sanctioned by and perpetrated on behalf of some human derived “plan” for the “greater good.”
C.S. Lewis, the noted author and Christian apologist, wrote:
“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”
In simpler terms, what Lewis is saying is this: Only a good people recognize the difference between right and wrong – a bad people are incapable of differentiating.
One must keep in mind some important distinctions with actual differences. History itself has proven that a) there is a close tie between classical liberalism and Christian teachings and b) to classical liberals (such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Acton to name a few), power by itself has always appeared to be a consummate evil, an ever present corrupting force that cannot be destroyed but must be diluted to be survived – but to contemporary collectivists (aka progressives, American liberals, socialists, Marxists and communists), it is something to be courted and concentrated, a goal in and of itself.
I do not believe that every person in America must be a Christian. Christianity is an individual choice, a conversion of the heart; however, in order to maintain the liberty that is so unique to our country, I do believe that America’s basis in Christian principles must be preserved and followed. This is not to say that America must become a theocracy because the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are not theocratic – they are universal statements of a free people. Hayek was not promoting Christianity when he identified the evil that must be ignored to be a collectivist. He did that from logical deduction based on observations taken in the middle of the horror of Germany’s experiment in the evils of national socialism. History proves that in the modern world, classical liberalism combined with Christian tenets seem to be to be the best (and perhaps only) defense against these evils.
This is why Christians in American politics matter to me and should matter to everyone, believers and non-believers alike.