Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

Keep Your Worlds Straight

‘My heart’s for my family, Joe. My brains and my balls are for business. And this is business. You got me?”

That line is from Cinderella Man, arguably the best boxing movie of the last 20 years. The context would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say this remark is supposed to establish its speaker — a tough-as-nails boxing promoter — as a heartless SOB. And while the character is in fact a heartless SOB, I always liked the line, because it sums up vast swathes of my political metaphysics (if you don’t think “political metaphysics” is a thing, my short reply is “Shut up”).

In the opening pages of The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek makes a simple distinction that explains what I’ve long called the fundamental category error in politics. In our local, family-centric lives, we live in what he describes as a “micro-cosmos.” The rules of the micro-cosmos are deeply informed by our instincts, our emotions, and what Hayek calls our “sentimental yearnings.” The macro-cosmos — i.e., society or civilization — is governed by a very different set of rules.

Let me put a fine point on it. Inside my family, I am a socialist and a bit of an authoritarian. I do not charge my daughter for her food, clothing, shelter, etc. My money is my wife’s money. As for the authoritarianism, my daughter doesn’t get to vote on how she spends most of her time. She has to do her homework, go to bed at a time of our choosing, eat what she’s fed, and so on. Ultimately, the family, properly conceived and run, is a benign autocracy, in which democracy is introduced slowly and piecemeal. I know of no good parents and — just as important — no good capitalists who disagree with me categorically about any of this.

Meanwhile, the farther out you get from the micro-cosmos of your formal family and your extended informal tribe of friends, the more the rules change. I will happily feed my friends and relatives free of charge, but I see no problem charging strangers for eating my chili (cheap at any price, by the way) or drinking my Scotch. My authority over my kid is near absolute, my authority over my friend’s kids is extremely limited, and my authority over a stranger’s kid is nearly nonexistent.

In the extended order of civilization, my obligations to strangers are almost wholly negative and formal. I am obliged not to steal your property or do you harm. These obligations may have support in manners and customs, but the only rules that truly bind us are legal, written down in books.

These two universes depend on each other for their survival. But if you try to run the macro-cosmos according to the rules of the micro-cosmos, or vice versa, you destroy them both. “If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it,” Hayek warns. Moreover, “if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.”

This should be obvious. A large society run like a family is in every meaningful sense tyrannical, and a family run like a democracy or a business is a hot mess. It’s no coincidence that just about every dictator you can think of cast himself as a father. Mussolini coined the term “totalitarianism” not to describe some Orwellian thugocracy, but to describe a society in which every person, or loyal Italian, is treated like family. The moral and spiritual impulse of The Communist Manifesto — “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — is a pithy summation of how to run a loving family and a recipe for destroying a civilization. Paternalism and nanny-statism are simply softer applications of the same category error.

Hayek’s description of two worlds is simplified. The two worlds surely overlap, like two giant ovals sharing a sliver of common space in a Venn diagram. But, more important, there are more than two worlds. There are countless worlds, infinite parallel universes sharing the same space and time. We call these realms communities, voluntary associations, religious faiths, sports teams, Dungeons & Dragons clubs, military units, and a thousand thousand other “little platoons” of life.

Most of these platoons march to their own drummers, rarely if ever intruding into realms where they do not belong. But nearly all the problems in politics stem from people thinking that the rules of one platoon can be transferred to the state. Whether it is the small businessman who wants to run government “like a business,” the veteran thinking he can bring the esprit de corps (or, in Mussolini’s case, the “socialism of the trenches”) to the bureaucracy, or the pious man who wants to make the state a religious endeavor, the great and abiding source of political calamity consists in people’s refusing to keep their worlds straight. The challenge for the happy warrior of the Right, as Hayek noted, is that we are designed to want to impose the rules of the micro-cosmos on the macro-cosmos.

The mission, therefore, of the happy warrior is to take what joy he can from his platoons while telling anyone who will listen to stay in his lane.

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