Politics and Morality
it's not that simple
I am reading Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, which is Kissinger’s magisterial judgment on the foreign policy of all nations for the last couple centuries, starting with the Congress of Vienna that met in 1814-15 after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
He makes it clear in Chapter Two that the analysis will be the interplay of Theodore Roosevelt’s Reallpolitik approach, centering on the balance of power and America’s national interest, and Woodrow Wilson’s moral approach,
that peace depends on the spread of democracy, that states should be judged by the same ethical criteria as individuals, and that the national interest consists of adhering to a universal system of law.
Thus, the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, dominated by Wilson, was driven by the moral principles of “collective security” and “self-determination.” Collective Security imagines a League of Nations that would organize nations to fight back against an aggressor, and Self Determination means that people can be governed only by their own consent.
Kissinger makes it clear that he believes that the Wilsonian approach of Versailles was a failure, and the Truman Doctrine after World War II, which involved a return to Realpolitik and setting up a balance of power against Stalin and the Soviet Union, was a success. However, he notes, the Cold War was sold to the American people by the ruling class in moral terms. Secretary of State Dean Acheson on the Atlantic Alliance:
it has advanced international cooperation to maintain the peace, to advance human rights, to raise standards of living, and to promote respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
And if you listen to politicians and commentators they are always mixing politics and morality.
You’ll notice what this means. It means that every war is justified as a moral crusade — as in holy war or religious war.
Now I have a bit of a problem with that, starting with my association with Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism that I developed into what I call “The Greater Separation of Powers.” I said we ought to expand the concept of the separation of powers — described by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws as the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers in government — to establish a greater separation of powers between the economy, politics, and the moral-cultural. The Greater Separation of Powers is described in my book An American Manifesto.
But then I read Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt and The Concept of the Political.
Let us suppose that in the field of morality the ultimate distinctions are good and evil; in the aesthetic, beautiful and ugly; in the economic, useful and harmful, or, for example, profitable and nonprofitable.
What then is the political?
The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be traced is the distinction between friend and enemy.
I would say that Schmitt rather starkly separates these four human distinctions into separate lanes: friend-enemy; good-evil; beautiful-ugly; useful-harmful.
Now, I would say that totalitarianism means the collapse of the Greater Separation of Power into the executive, that all human affairs are reduced to the political. And thus reduced to the distinction between friend and enemy. That is why Curtis Yarvin writes: “there is no politics without an enemy.”
I think that we all agree that totalitarianism, at least in principle, is bad.
We can see that, for a start, totalitarianism collapses the three branches of government into one. But it is also clear, from the experience of Communism and Fascism — and also the current experience of today’s upper-class activism that we disparage as “wokism” — that it is always a convenience for political actors to fold the moral into the political. That is what Henry Kissinger was describing when he noted how the US government sold the Cold War to the American people as a moral crusade. USG didn’t think it could persuade the American people on Realpolitik or balance of power arguments, probably because they thought that the American people wouldn’t understand the arguments; so it had to be a moral argument.
You can see how this tendency drenches politics. We don’t think of Hitler just as an enemy that we had to fight, but as evil incarnate. We don’t think of murderers as domestic enemies so much as evil monsters. And politicians Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked to think of rich corporate chieftains as “malefactors of great wealth” and “economic royalists.”
But I think it is important to separate these concepts. In the economic, if a businessman makes a fortune, good luck to him. If his business fails, we feel sorry for him.
Now, if the businessman cheats his customers, then we are getting into the moral realm. To a certain extent, the public condemnation of cheating, as an evil act, enters the moral realm. And if the businessman won’t repay his customers and won’t say he’s sorry, that’s when the state comes in with its policemen and laws and penalties to impose its will. At this point the cheating businessman becomes an enemy of society.
You can see that in a perfect world the businessman would volunteer to make his customers whole. In a decent world it takes a bit of encouragement to get the businessman to do the right thing. In the real world, it often takes the state to step in and force the businessman to do the right thing.
But if we work from the opposite end, we can see that, if “there is no politics without an enemy” then all politicians are on the hunt for that enemy behind the tree so his can lead his people to victory against the enemy. Because the political is the friend-enemy distinction. And they are always tempted to escalate a moral issue into a fight against the enemy. And they are always tempted to escalate the normal disappointments of economic transactions into a fight against “economic royalists” as FDR did in his renomination speech in 1936 after failing to get the US out of the Great Depression.
So I would say that politicians are always on the hunt for an enemy, and that’s a problem.
If we look at this in the middle, we see that ordinary people tend to judge the events of their life in moral terms. And this makes sense, for in the ordinary face-to-face world, the Life World, we expect people to behave in a certain way, and if they disappoint us, we judge them: maybe as rude, maybe as nasty, maybe as evil. So when prices go up at the supermarket we are tempted to blame the market, or the supermarket chain, or even business in general.
Ordinary people are quick to judge other people when things go wrong.
I think it is telling that, to justify the Cold War, the Truman administration decided it was not enough to say: hey, we need to balance the power of the Soviet Union, and we need to form a military alliance, and we need to resurrect the US and British and French occupation zones of Germany into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland as a counterweight to the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe. No, it had to be a moral argument.
I suspect this is partly because ordinary people don’t understand interstate rivalries and Realpolitik. Thus politicians have to communicate in a language that ordinary people understand. It is not the language of rival urban criminal gangs, but the language of ordinary people in their day-to-day relationships.
But in my view, in a better world politicians would stay in their lane and shut up unless there was a real enemy. The problem is that we live in the real world. And that means, if you ask me, that we need to be very severe on politicians that overstep from the political world into the moral world and the economic world. Unless there’s a real enemy involved.