The Limits of Politics

What I refer to as the “limits of politics” goes much further and deeper than notion of “limited government.” The latter tends to emphasize the quantitative aspect of politics, as if less government was a sufficient goal and that no government, for the libertarian anarchist, is the positive ideal.

A more qualitative view is one that limits not so much the size of government as its overall scope. No doubt in a modern, highly complex society, we must expect more bureaucracy than existed in our great-grandfather’s day. At the same time one laments the increased expectations for political solutions to fundamental human issues. Despite the inherent failure of such expectations, governmental control is not discouraged. On the contrary the impatience of social planners demands further domination of our private lives in order to deal with a growing array of “problems” that they have been paid and empowered to “solve.”

According to the late Frederick D. Wilhelmsen in his perceptive study Christianity and Political Philosophy (1978), “Every political order is limited in its claims unless, of course, it promises to incarnate the law of history as does World Communism.” Wilhelmsen goes on to discuss the importance of natural law, a theory of social ethics going back to Cicero and the Stoics, as a basis of human society. “Although man’s political nature is natural, his political life is artifacted, constructed by himself.” In this sense, the principle of natural law “has a claim on all men that politics cannot make.”

A law transcending political boundaries and concrete allegiances, a law pretending to cut across all of them in the sense of applying to all of them indiscriminately, is a potential threat to the pretensions of all politics. A law so natural that the positive law of the state must be built on it—or at least not be built in opposition to it—is a competitor given man as we find him. Such a law must bridle the pride of legislators and the presumed sovereignty of states. If natural law is limited by revelation, then natural law in turn limits politics.

This theme is explored by James V. Schall, S.J. in his essay “St. Augustine’s ‘Political Realism’.” According to the modern “activist” mentality, everything including philosophy and religion are viewed through an ideological lens. Understandably, Schall is concerned that the removal of the transcendent from our social order, and the divinization of power, means that “fewer and fewer intrinsic limits to politics and action are acknowledged and observed.” With a sense of humor Schall describes the outlook of hyper-politicized individuals: “Often these… students are bent on saving the world, largely, as far as I can tell, by going to law school, itself something of a problem in political philosophy.”

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