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The Limits of State Intervention
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Friday, May 08, 2009
Posted: Friday, May 08, 2009

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The legitimate sphere of political authority; internal conflict; war and peace

The legitimate sphere of political authority is always of keen interest to the ordinary citizen as well as to the serious student of political science. Professor Westel W. Willoughby (1867-1945) of John Hopkins University, "the dean of American political science" who helped establish political science as discipline separate from economics and history, took up the timeless issue of state sovereignty in his book The Ethical Basis of Political Authority.

Since the function of the State, Willoughby averred, is to advance the welfare of its citizens, there is no logical absolute limit to its power to do so. In other words, there is no absolute ethical principle restraining the State from providing for the welfare of its citizens. Of course many citizens with their own welfare in mind or with a different idea of what the general welfare entails may object to the State’s provisions for the welfare of the whole or any of its parts. Ironically, their effort to prevent state intrusion may have the effect of advancing and aggravating state intrusion. Furthermore, under the complex conditions of our society, where all individuals are closely interrelated, a universal law to preclude one individual from interfering with another individual can be used by the state to interfere with everyone.

Conversely, we might counter that since the progress of human civilization depends on what we call constructive criticism or creative destruction, efforts contrary to state intervention may in fact contribute, by way of a moving consensus or compromise, to the general welfare of its citizens

According to Willoughby, the individual and his attributes are so integrated with society that it is impossible to draw a logical distinction between the individual and the society; therefore in the absolute sense there is no such thing as individual "rights" that cannot be infringed by the highest form of social organization, the state. Of course civil rights are maintained by police power which exercises the right of the state to intervene to secure the public welfare; hence civil rights are not absolute but are limited to the requirements of public order and general welfare. For instance, in time of war the citizen may be required to give his life up for the general welfare. Yet as far as the individual is concerned, moral activity has an internal motive; it is an act of the person's moral will, wherefore he may voluntarily make the ultimate sacrifice, if he will. If not, an external force can coerce him to act; nevertheless, it cannot coerce his moral will. Again, he may very well be forced to do something unwillingly, but his moral will remains free when he wills not to perform the action. That is to say that a person’s thoughts are free if directed by his individual will – “moral” was once considered synonymous with “mental.”

Let us assume with the professor that there is no absolute limit to the provision of welfare. Nevertheless, theories of state sovereignty abound; the appropriate limit of governmental intervention is and shall ever be the subject of continuing and often heated controversy. Nonetheless, most people do not have the leisure to engage in theoretical arguments; they leave the issues to those delegates who are so inclined to debate them, and soon discover that even those who are argue for less governmental incursion wind up voting for more of it. By virtue of human nature, which can be held against us, we are creatures of habit who go along with the political authority because it is convenient to do so. Much to our chagrin, the state can, by repeatedly forcing unethical acts on people, eventually cause those of us inclined to obey them to believe those acts are ethical. Therefore only the active and continuous cultivation of conscience and character by the individual can lead him or her to that personal freedom which is the personally responsibility of a free agent. Personal responsibility is crucial to freedom in order, for the person comprises not only the individual but the society as well. In any event, a balance must be struck between anarchy and tyranny, individual and society, freedom and order. A tug-of-war is at play along the continuum between the poles, and nothing can be accomplished without the use of force. Again, no end is achieved without the employment of force.

For thousands of years it has been an understatement to say that history is a record of man's crimes against humanity. Humans apparently need someone to hate in order to love themselves; hence they organize themselves into groups to do just that. After examining the record of violence and cruelty from the dawn of history on down to its continuation today, we might conclude that the human race is genetically defective, or we might think man was conceived in original sin by a sadistic creator – all individuals are born into original sin because individuals necessarily vary from one another and from the ideal Good, the social One. On the other hand, humankind has gone forth and multiplied and taken over the planet. In spite of our faults, and because of them, we are successful, rational animals, physically weaker than other members of the animal kingdom, but stronger by virtue of our imagination and other mental powers.

Therefore, if that be true , we may proffer this truth about human history: If civilization is a success, then history is not only a record of crimes against humanity, it is also a success story brought about by the exercise of force often violent and unjust – I once approached a man on Fifth Avenue because he looked familiar; he identified himself: "You probably recognize my Viking forebears. I am descended from conquest, from murderers and rapists." Of course he exaggerated one side of the story.

During the course of human history many swords were melted down and forged into ploughs and cookware. Some peoples enjoyed considerable periods of peace. When peace was threatened, the kitchen utensils were melted down into weapons. Peace could only be maintained for long periods under the shadow of swords, fashioned and guided by the human intellect. In China, for example, the sacred words of power were not only written on tortoise shells and kettles but also etched on swords. And Pen and Sword worked as one to end the seemingly endless Warring States Period and to establish an imperial regimen lasting over two thousand years. Of course violent internal struggles recurred from time to time, especially when the Emperor departed from the heavenly mandate, purportedly causing major droughts and floods. Nonetheless, the general order and relative peace of empire, purchased two centuries before Christ at the cost of millions of lives, withstood the test of time. But without the constant wars between the states, the Chinese civilization, resting on its agricultural foundation, was arrested so to speak; philosophical and scientific innovation atrophied and astronomical routine was the order of the dynasties. Still, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, enlightened intellectuals in war-torn Europe praised China as a vastly superior civilization in terms of morals and statecraft. Very few called it a despotic regimen or an oppressive state.

However that may be, history provides us with many examples of the ways civilization is advanced by human force so cruel at times we wonder how the various races managed to survive at all. Actually the various races have not survived except in hybrid forms – the real superman is a mongrel. To the victor went the spoils of war including the vanquished women. Some women were patriotic and committed suicide either alone or en masse; many capitulated to save their lives; others instinctively embraced the winners. In short, a great deal of miscegenation has occurred over time, with the net effect of stronger human beings, much to the chagrin of the "superman" theorists; they admitted that no surviving Teutonic or Aryan super race exists, and recommended creating a mythical race to suit the purpose - the more ignorant Nazis actually believed the story concocted, but Hitler certainly did not, nor did he really believe that Jews were of inferior racial stock.

We might say, "Never mind the ancient history, for Christ's sake. Let's accentuate the positive and move forward." That is better said than done, because many people find their identity in their suffering by cutting ancient scars open yet again and rubbing salt in the wounds. Each ethnic group naturally wants to be admired, yet "patriotic" or "ethnocentric" members within the groups are jealous of other self-conscious ethnic communities with whom they have had conflicts at one time or another. Ethnocentric persons are indignant when a traditional enemy is praised for its positive contributions to civilization; their own history of violence is ignored in order to emphasize the crimes of their enemies. Even Christians among the ethnocentric persons cannot forgive, forgetting that one of the "crimes" against society of their beloved Jesus was not only forgiving enemies but for the forgiving act itself. "Only god can forgive," was the old general rule. To forgive an offender was downright immoral; how could anyone learn except by application of the talion principle? by collective punishment? by blood feuding? Kill the terrorist on sight, destroy his family's property, kill or exile his family, and never mind collateral damage. Of course an opportunity might be provided to a member of one's own group to confess and repent and pay the price for god's forgiveness, but Christ's way of forgiving just anybody, even when forgiveness is not sought, is anti-social and terribly immoral.


One school of thought embraces conflict unto bloody war as a moral enterprise. “War is not only a political necessity, it is also a theoretical necessity, an exigency of logic. The concept of the State implies this concept of war…. That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral.” (Trietschke). “Ye shall love peace as a means to new war, and the short peace more than the long.” (Nietzsche). “Nature has not reserved this European soil for the future possession of any particular nation or race; on the contrary, this soil exists for the people which possess the force to take it.” (Hitler). Who is right and who is wrong? How can global peace be brought about when peace activists are confronted with persistent feuding and unforgiveness, not to mention the conflict theory of militants? It seems many loving people are unconscious of the personal nature of the predicament: that the conflict, underlying crisis or hypo-crisy, resides within each and every one of us. Sometimes those who most ardently advocate peace do so to restrain themselves from violence –perhaps they would rid the world of guns not to protect themselves from others but because they subconsciously fear what they might do to others if guns were available. Here is a recent public exchange between two people who sincerely advertise themselves as loving peace activists:


A: Intellectuals are eternally grateful for Islam's medieval contributions to our Western intellectual culture. Muslim philosophers introduced the West to the humanist movement, the historical sciences, the inductive scientific method, the founding principles of the Italian Renaissance and, most importantly, the harmony of faith and reason that shocked medieval Europe.

B: Why do you maintain that we must grateful to Islam for the preservation of Greek philosophy and its development of rational science; --- is it ironic or do you really believe this statement of yours: "We are eternally grateful to Islam for the preservation of Greek philosophy and its development of rational science; but we have taken that science to an extreme, neglecting the mitigating metaphysics of the medieval Muslim philosophers who were doctors of the soul as well as of the body.”

A: Well, I started making notes on that subject some time ago. They express my reaction to some public comments made in the media and elsewhere, long before I encountered your public vituperation in respect to Islam. My research might satisfy your curiosity about the phrase you quoted.

B: Dear friend, I am not trying to be sarcastic, but you have been reading books from Western libraries filled with lies. Have you been in greece between 1453 and 1821? Have you studied the byzantine history? No, I don't think so. islam is a religion I respect, I respect all religions. But the orthodox monks derived from the byzantine era, and in a way helped the enfeeblement of the byzantine empire. Many young people preferred the scholarship of the monasteries rather than fight for their country. Of course the same christians destroyed most of the ancient culture including scripts and works of art. The islamic evasion instigated a freebooting beyond comprehension and brought slavery and child-abduction in the lives of the sleeping greeks. The greek population never considered islam as a probable solution out of their problems, and remained christians till the Revolution. The church had a double role in the whole matter. One part of the greek orthodox church was friendly to the ottomans, another fought with the populace against them... There is absolutely no connection between islam and greek Philosophy and the renaissance had nothing to do with Ottomans. All that is a selfish, racist, Western lie. Even the greeks that have been slaves for 400 years, under tough leadership without education have been aroused from the sleep of lost history by the literary men of Diaspora known as Fanariotes...

A: Gratitude expressed towards Muslims does not alter the reality of the Greek inventions they cultivated. Neither does (another woman's) beauty detract from yours.

B: i don't care about the hormonical storm in the minds of the oasian chaps.... my ancestor is Socrates the one that praised the civilization of Knosos..../ such was the disgrace for a young greek girl to sleep with or to even be raped by one of the islamico-muslim icoarabomo gollianicolads of the ottomans that the village threw stones at her to never give birth to a child. for 400 hundred years the greeks remained in a constant silence massacred to the nth degree--- can this deathly silence be taken as islam's contribution to greek philosophy? can this be considered as cultivating the inventions of the greeks??? nearly 1,000,000 people were left in this HOLY land from the 50 million ..... tortured to death by dervishical paganism....... profitable passah, mouftisical egoism.... and all this because ONE priest opened the gate of Konstantinopolis---- I rest my case for now... some people don't have greek blood in their veins just like you they don't have indian blood to understand the torture...... But it's your right to speak, and say what you want! I respect that..... but I have the right as well. So don't soft-pedal everything to a beauty-contest. Kind regards.

A: I appreciate true colors, and your self-portrait is warmly regarded. I occasionally write about the unrivaled beauty of the Greeks. I look forward to your essay on the subject.

B: I appreciate true colors as well, BUT WHO GETS RID OF THE BLACK SUN-GLASSES TO SEE THEM? Don't worry, you will have your essay dear Saton. It will be in greek though. Cheers!!


All right, then, but let us return to force. Generally speaking, the use of energy or exercise of force is not morally wrong – the wrong or right would be in the way employment and to what end. There are no a priori, abstract ethical principles justifying or prohibiting the use of force. The use of violent force, or war, is not wrong providing there is no better or more efficient means of obtaining the end deemed right by the ethical process. The end deemed right by the ethical process is relative to the interests of the parties who make that judgment. No doubt human beings are fallible and shall ever be so, therefore in our objective jihad to realize universal righteousness in this world, our ethical process or strategic war planning is always subject to revision each time our war machine gets bogged down by human nature.

Wherefore in our intellectual jihad our spirit despairs of any rational solution to the problem of perpetual violence. Mired in the mud of ethical relativism, the spirit gives up hope of any logical ascent to the one and only answer, the metaphysical summit, the supreme being, and resorts to a leap of faith in another, incomprehensible world, which for all intents and purposes is non-existent because it can never be realized in this world of relative particulars. That is to say that, ultimately, the object of ethics, the Good, can never be fully known, so rather than to despair, one believes in what appears to be nothing at all because it cannot be refuted: it cannot appear in time and space except as a miraculous disaster destructive of the entire world order as we know it in order to gain it eternal peace in the valley of death. After all, in order not to despair when confronted with the miserable facts of human history, man still needs some thing to believe in, but things are temporal and perish in the end, so why not believe in no thing, or Nothing, if you prefer.?

Finally our consciousness has been raised over the past million years to survey the relativity of all ethical systems and their failure to accomplish much short of perpetual warfare; therefore, rather than to completely despair in suicide or another episode of mass murder, a man may resort to blind faith in nothing but Nothing. Of course he still adheres to "his" relative ethical system; more often than not he does so as a matter of habit without the slightest awareness of its self-contradictions or absurdity. In any event, despairing of having faith in man with his definite problems, he has faith in the indefinite, and goes forth confidently to do whatever he wanted to do in the first place, but with a good feeling of humility in face of the awesome end of every life. That leaves him alive and leads him to the inevitable conflict which challenges the humility he is so proud of; once again he falls back on some relative ethical system which suits the purpose of war. Since that system is inherently bound to fall short of the ideal of, say, the universal love that absorbs the individual in a feeling of oceanic peace - the very nature of systems precludes the ideal - he proceeds believing that, whatever he does, he will be forgiven and justified by the god who created him fallible or originally evil.

Therefore the prospects are worse than gloomy. In fact, the litany of facts is a depressing dirge. The morning edition of the Daily Gospel is enough to ruin the day: Read the evening edition for nightmares. The religious remedy for the horror leaves one even more dejected, as in "thrown down", thrown down to such an hellish depth of despair that the only alternative is to surrender to the ultimate fact that there is no escape. Hence one must be realistic.

We speak not here of dreamy idealists who think their dreams are real, but to pessimistic realists who have no faith in man as such. Amongst them we find realists who profess faith in the unknown one and only god. For instance, take Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who was one of the most influential professors of Christianity of his day. He was the father of the foreign-policy philosophy known as "realism." His views are considered fundamental to many Protestant denominations. He denounced Christian utopianism during World War II, and withdrew from the socialist and pacifist institutions he had been associated with. As far as Niebuhr was concerned, the so-called "law of love" does not and can not govern the facts of human existence, for humanity originates in sin. Christianity is not a faith in love alone; simply loving everyone will not work, nor will socialist programs.

Now then, according to Willoughby, the aim of governmental intervention is the welfare of the people, hence there is no absolute limit to intervention for that good end, but after swallowing a few bites of Niebuhr's Christian realism, we are left with a sinking feeling in the depths of our human corruption; we revert to the idea of human history as record of crimes against humanity, a war path from one holocaust to another. Nevertheless, the bloody wars must be fought according to the relative ethical systems which, as we know, are defective by virtue of their partiality to one line of thinking or the other, hence tend to justify one violent faction or another, or even both in their mutual self-contradictions. Even under one and only god, groups love to hate and kill each other pursuant to the same sacred law, which is, ultimately, kill or be killed, and hope chance if not god is on our side. Today we count on our technology to win, but Solomon's advice not to rely on our wealth for the outcome of war still holds true : a few humans can now kill millions with a nuclear device. No, according to Christian realism, we should not rely on government to solve the problem or original sin. Yes, the conflict originates in the evil within; ideologies are so much swamp gas escaping from the rotten root of the human race. There is no escape from original evil but faith in the god who made this rotating good-versus-evil disaster to teach us a lesson. "He", in his infinite mercy, might grace us with forgiveness for our evil deeds, for he created this conflict that we might fear and love him; in our original evil we are really as innocent as a newborn baby.

Christian realism looks into the face of evil. Let us wake up and smell the coffee, and while eating breakfast read a few phrases from Reinhold Niebuhr's interpretation of the Christian gospel, abstracted from his brilliant essay 'Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist':

"...The failure of the Church to espouse pacifism is not apostasy, but is derived from an understanding of the Christian Gospel which refuses simply to equate the Gospel with the 'law of love.'

"...The good news of the gospel is that there is a resource of divine mercy which is able to overcome a contradiction within our own souls, which we cannot ourselves overcome. This contradiction is that, though we know we ought to love our neighbor as our Self, there is a 'law in our members which wars against the law that is in our mind,' so that, in fact, we love ourselves more than our neighbor.

"The grace of God which is revealed in Christ is... an actual 'power of righteousness'... This grace is conceived as 'justification,' as pardon rather than power, as the forgiveness of God which is vouchsafed to man despite the fact that he never achieves the full measure of Christ... The secular and moralistic version of Christianity... cannot understand the doctrine precisely because they believe there is some simple way out of the sinfulness of human history.

"...In the profoundest versions of the Christian faith the very utopian illusions, which are equated with Christianity, have been rigorously disavowed.

"...In medieval ascetic perfectionism and in Protestant sectarian perfectionism... the effort to achieve a standard of perfect love was not presented as a political alternative. On the contrary, the political problem and the task were specifically disavowed... On the contrary, it regarded the mystery of evil as beyond its power of solution. It was content to set up the most perfect and unselfish individual life as a symbol of the Kingdom of God. It knew that this could only be done by disavowing the political task and by freeing the individual of all responsibility for social justice.(emphasis added)

"It is this kind of pacifism which is not a heresy... It is a reminder to the Christian community that the relative norms of social justice... are not final...

"...Yet most modern forms of Christian pacifism are heretical. Presumably inspired by the Christian gospel, they have really absorbed the Renaissance faith in the goodness of man, have rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin as an outmoded bit of pessimism, have reinterpreted the Cross so that it is made to stand for the absurd idea that perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory over the world, and have rejected all other profound elements of the Christian gospel as 'Pauline' accretions which must be stripped from the 'simple gospel of Jesus.' This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel. It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence...

"...A religious faith which substitutes faith in man for faith in God cannot validate itself in experience. If we believe that the only reason men do not love each other perfectly is because the law of love has not been preached perfectly, we believe something to which experience does not conform...

"... Nothing is more futile and pathetic than the effort of some theologians who find it necessary to become involved in the relativities of politics, in resistance to tyranny or in social conflict, to justify themselves by seeking to prove Christ was also involved in some of these relativities...

"...(We) are very foolish if we try to reduce the ethic (of Jesus) so that it will cover and justify our prudential and relative standards and strategies. To do this is to reduce the ethic to a new legalism. The significance of the law of love is precisely that it is not just another law, but a law which transcends all law...

"...An ethic of pure non-resistance can have no immediate relevance to any political situation; for in every political situation it is necessary to achieve justice by resisting pride and power...

"...The reductio ad absurdum of this position is achieved in a book which has become something of a textbook for modern pacifists, Richard Gregg's The Power of Non-Violence. In this book non-violent resistance is commended as the best method of defeating your foe, particularly as the method of breaking his morale. It is suggested that Christ ended his life on the Cross (via passive non-resistance instead of active non-violent resistance - Ed.) because he had not completely mastered the technique of non-violence, and for this reason be regarded as a guide who is inferior to Gandhi, but whose significance lies in initiating a movement which culminates in Gandhi.

"...There is no life which is not involved in a violation of the injunction, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' No one is so blind as the idealist who tells us that war would be unnecessary 'if only' nations obeyed the law of Christ, but who remains unconscious of the fact that even the most saintly life is involved in some measure of contradiction to this law...

"The pacifists do not know human nature... They merely assert that if men loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with. They do not see that their 'if' begs the most basic problem of human history. It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand. The political life of man must constantly steer between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny." (emphasis added) See Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, New York: Scribner, 1940.

Niebuhr apparently places democratic-republican coercion in the good hand and tyrannical coercion in the evil hand. That political imbalance is not altogether comforting to those who believe their "tyrant" (an unjust ruler) or their god is just. We and our state are left again with the problem of ethics, ethical relativism. Again, in the final analysis, we can kill or be killed: we can fight Hitler, for example, or we can line up naked at the trenches to be passively slaughtered, praying with eyes uplifted to YHWH.

The rubric under which Niehbuhr's essay falls – Why the Church is Not Pacifist – not only gives the lie to his essay but it betrays the essential hypocrisy of Protestantism in its Lutheran separation of church and state. First of all, if, as Niebuhr argues, Christian realism does not mix with politics, then Christianity is neither politically militant nor pacific. Confronted with the horror of World War II and the understandable need to fight Hitler to the death, Niebuhr wanted to justify military service of Christians by arguing against the modern imitation of early Christianity's refusal to do so. He states that theologians are better off leaving politics alone; yet he, a theologian, jumps into the line of fire, and insists that the "Church", which he feels he represents, is not Pacifist. He would have been better off presenting a realistic, secular argument against the forces of fascism and leaving participation up to the individual's conscience. But since he was obviously beating a war drum to encourage Christians to fight against the "synthetic barbarians," he might have reverted to Luther's feudal development of the Augustinian scriptural interpretation of the shield-sheathing scene: Augustine delivered Christ's sword to the political authority; Luther left the sword in the hands of the political authority under the feudal concept of justifiable war, that fealty and absolute obedience is due to the king whether he is right or wrong, just as a child is owned by his father and owes obedience thereto.

That separation of church and state, of faith and works, relegated god to the other world and left real power in the hands of the political authority, where it will be in the absence of theocracy. Yet this for all intents and purposes reveals Protestantism as a virtually atheistic protest against the Kingdom of God on Earth, for politics rules the Protestant. That was once the complaint of the Catholic Church, a cosmopolitan institution that wanted all kingdoms and nations living peacefully under Christ (a foolish and impossible project according to Niehbuhr); in short, Protestantism is a rebellion against the Christian deity. And of course non-Catholic critics have claimed the Reformation was one side of the political revolution; notwithstanding and even because of Calvin's quasi-theocratic moral puritanism, Protestantism has become a secular religion of materialism. Furthermore, neo-Hegalians and Marxists argued that Protestantism was identical to secular Judaism, therefore limiting the "Jewish Question", to what to do about Jews, was a serious mistake.

Now the Reformation may in fact be an improvement over Christianity's previous stage. Protestantism may be preparing the way to a superior religion; or, if you prefer, a superior non-religion. But to return to the separation of Church and State; it does not have to be a divorce: the priest may still have his influence, he may still whisper in the king's ear. In return, the king will use the sword to defend the true faith that would be free from state intervention, the essentially "ascetic" and pacifist core of religion, namely the priesthood, providing it does not threaten the existence of the state. Of course the priests do not have to take up the sword, but they may be defended by the sword until everyone drinks of the loving cup and is a priest as well. As for conscientious objectors, there will be very few of them in a just war; and whether or not a war is just, there will be hordes volunteering to kill one another. The core of religions has universal character; it is pacifist, and that core is well worth defending lest it perish and humankind regress to total war again. That is what Niebuhr referred to as legitimate pacifism, the universal faith of altruism which refuses to kill under any circumstance. Niebuhr knew very well that the pacific core must stand passive in testimony to the fact that all conventional norms are relative, for those conflicting norms all too often lead to mutual assured destruction. Reinhold Niebuhr lived out the most terrible predicament of world war followed by the high probability of mutually assured nuclear destruction; when we behold the countenance of Christian realism, we look into the face of evil. Regardless of Niebuhr's understandable pessimism and faith in original evil, we have faith and knowledge that we can and will overcome it not matter how long that might take.




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