The Government of Posterity


EVEN if he remembers the historic struggle against absolutism, the contemporary collectivist will resent the charge that he is leading men back to the old order of things. He is conscious of very different intentions from those which he imputes to the ministers of the absolutist autocrats of history. His eyes are upon the future; theirs were on the past. They sought to preserve a great inheritance. He seeks to contrive a glorious destiny. If, like them, he relies upon the pervasive regulation of men’s affairs, he feels sure that his different purpose will produce a different result.

He feels sure that it will because he hopes that it will. His ardent wish makes plausible one of the most enchanting myths which ever captured the human imagination. From the marriage of knowledge with force a new god is to be born. Out of the union of Science with Government there is to issue a Providential State, possessed of all knowledge and of the power to enforce it. Thus at last the vision of Plato is to be realized: reason will be crowned and the sovereign will be rational. The philosophers are to be kings; that is to say, the prime ministers and their parliaments, the dictators and their commissars, are to follow the engineers, biologists, and economists who will arrange the scheme of things. The men who know are to direct human affairs and the directors are to listen to those who know. Though the Providential State of the future is to have all the authority of the most absolute state of the past, it is to be different; consecrated technicians are to replace the courtiers and the courtesans of the king, and the irresistible power of government is to serve mankind.

This myth has taken hold of the human imagination as ancestral religion has dissolved under the acids of modernity. Men find themselves in a troubled world where they no longer look confidently to God for the regulation of human affairs, where custom has ceased to guide and tradition to sanctify them. The dissolution of faith had been under way for generations, but in 1914 there took place a catastrophic unsettlement of the human routine. The system of the world’s peace was shattered; the economy which was the condition of its prosperity was dislocated. A thousand matters once taken for granted and left to routine became questions of life and death.

In the darkness there was a desperate need for light. Amid overwhelming circumstance there was a desperate need for leading. In the disorder, as men became more bewildered in their spirits, they became more credulous in their opinions and more anxiously compulsive in their actions. Only the scientists seemed to know what they were doing. Only governments seemed to have the power to act.

The conditions could not have been more favorable to the reception of the myth. Science had become the only human enterprise which all men looked upon as successful. Society was broken and unruly. The need for authority was acute, yet the authority of custom, tradition, and religion was lost. In their extremity men hastened to entrust to government, which can at least act decisively and impressively, the whole burden of their destiny. In science there was knowledge. In government there was power. By their union an indispensable providence was to be created and the future of human society contrived and directed. The people longed for kings who were philosophers. And so the men who washed to be kings declared that they were philosophers. All the things lacking in the actual world were projected upon the imaginary state that men so desperately desired.


This belief that the coming social order can be imagined and planned and established by the coercive authority of government is indeed something new. Plato did persuade the tyrant of Syracuse to let him try an experiment of this sort, while here and there rulers like Peter the Great may have toyed with the idea, but until recent times great masses of men have not had any notion that such an enterprise was even conceivable, much less that it was practicable.

All the ancient polities professed to be the guardians of a traditional order. They conserved revealed religion, the privileges and duties of the various ranks in the social hierarchy, the fruits of conquest, the rights of property, even on occasion the rights of men. They maintained the social constitution as against its enemies. The rulers had their mandates from a tradition that they had inherited.

Thus, in the older conception of the state, the validity of power was based upon possession. Might was right if it was an ancient might — if it had been delegated by a people’s gods, received by their heroes, domesticated by their ancestors, confirmed by the immemorial consent of the community. However despotic, authority was never avowedly willful or arbitrary: all political power was supposed to be derived from an ancient title and to be limited by its title deeds.

Nor was this a mere fiction. In practice the freedom of the ruler was restrained by an immense accumulation of precedent and usage. He was only one in a line of rulers and his prerogatives were not derived from his purposes but from the precedents. To some considerable degree the authority of the ruler and the obedience of his subjects were not measured by the strength of their separated willfulness, but were held in a common inheritance. To that unifying tradition from a past which all men regarded as immutable and superior to their desires, the rulers had to assimilate their immediate purposes by conformity, by fictions, and by casuistry.

The modern view is the reversal of all this. The authority of the state comes not from a tradition of the past but from a speculation upon the future. The criterion of its policy is the desirable shape of things to come; it reasons from the presumptive needs of posterity and not from the prescriptive rights of ancestral usage. This is a radical change of orientation. It means that modern political thought has to reason from anticipation and not from precedent, that it is founded upon current, not upon received, opinion. Thus, in turning to the future for his criterion, the modern political thinker leaves behind him the only criterion shared by all men — that is to say, their common remembrance of the past.

For, although there are different versions of the past, all the versions do at least profess to deal with the same experience and they do suppose that there is an objective truth which can be discovered. Thus there is something massive and impersonal above and behind opinion, something once and for all established, something rooted in habit and unconscious loyalty, that imposes a certain humility upon the individual will. But the future is the realm of all the possibilities and it supplies no criterion by which to determine whether one man’s guess or preference is better than another’s. Under the new dispensation, therefore, the ruler has no title except temporary approval of his promises or necessary submission to his superior power: there is no commonly recognized charter to which both he and his opponents can appeal.

Inevitably the modern state becomes increasingly arbitrary as it turns from the function of doing justice among men, of protecting them against the oppression of arbitrary power, to the contriving and imposing of a way of life. When government takes it upon itself to be the central agency of progress rather than to maintain the conditions under which individuals can initiate progress and adapt themselves to it, it enters a field where there are no bounds to its actions. The speculative future has no moral authority: government is cut loose from limitations of usage and ancient right which alone can provide a commonly accepted objective control of the state.

The possibilities of the future are unlimited. If the unlimited force of the state has no control more precise than men’s guesses about the future, then, indeed, the state is subject to no control. Only those who are capable of resisting it can stand against it. They cannot argue because there are no common premises on which an argument can be based. In essence they can only threaten. When power is subject only to opinions about the future, it must become as vagrant as the future is indeterminate.


Thus the coercive state of the future is likely to be more arbitrary than the absolute states of the past. It is in the literal meaning of the word more autocratic. For it lacks even the ancient control of tradition, by precedent and usage. Its power is wielded by men subject to no restraint except their anticipations.

Unhappily there is no dependable method of predicting the future. There have been fortunate guesses made by shrewd observers. Because they are so few and far between they affect our imagination, but is there any reason to think that anyone has ever discovered a method of forecasting the evolution of human society? Prophecies have been made which were fulfilled; many more have been made which were not. But since there is no way of finding out before the event how great is the probability that the prophecy is true, it cannot be said that there exists a prophetic faculty upon which governments can rely.

Yet it is widely supposed that modern science has discovered a method of prediction which justifies us in thinking that we can govern our descendants. It is an ambitious idea, but it is based largely upon misunderstanding arising from a failure to distinguish between the discovery of uniformities which follow an approximately recurrent pattern and the discovery of methods by which the pattern can be altered deliberately to produce a desired result.

It is with the deliberate shaping of future events that the cult of the state is, of course, concerned. It assumes that men can deliberately invent a plan for human affairs which will produce in the future the social order they now think desirable. In applied science it is possible to add one chemical to another and produce another substance: the cult of the Providential State rests on the assumption that by a series of legally coercive commands and prohibitions a different but predetermined social order can be contrived. The analogy is fallacious: the successful applications of scientific knowledge furnish no warrant for thinking that any such control over society as a whole is even theoretically within the reach of mankind.

For the essential condition of the scientific regulation of an event is that the desired result shall be precisely defined and that all the relevant factors shall be under exact control. The regulation must take place within a closed system, neutral and sterile to external influences, and it must have a limited purpose. These conditions can be approximated in a laboratory. Dr. Carrel has, for example, been able to make a chicken’s heart presumptively immortal. But he has done it by isolating the chicken’s heart in an environment of which he is the master. And it is only a piece of a chicken, not even one whole chicken capable of living a chicken’s life, that he has made immortal. At that, his piece of tissue is immortal only if the apparatus in which it lives does not break down, if the materials on which it feeds arrive at the laboratory, if the building in which it is housed is not destroyed by a bombardment, if Dr. Carrel and his assistants are not arrested and put into a concentration camp.

In society as a whole the objectives are never limited and simple; the total environment can never be mastered. For the aggregate needs and desires of a great population are so complex that they cannot be conceived by the human mind: the elements which enter into their satisfaction are too elusive to be measured, too numerous to be calculated. That is why the purposes of government are always stated in phrases that beg the question: the ‘good life,’ the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ the ‘general welfare,’ the ‘abundant life,’ the ‘glory of the nation.’ These phrases are vague not because men prefer to speak indefinitely but because the multiple purposes of multitudes cannot be formulated precisely.

We shall find, when we come to examine more closely the real policies of the purposeful states, that it is only by contracting their purposes that they can intensify their control. For it is impossible to direct a whole society to the realization of all the ideals of its people. If the variety of ideals is respected by authority, then there will be a variety of conflicting plans. If among those plans one is chosen, it can be imposed only as the other plans are suppressed.


When we remember that any government is composed of mortal men, it is evident that there must be limits to the degree in which a social order can be planned and deliberately administered. It makes no difference whether the rulers of a state inherit authority or were elected to it, whether they received it by appointment or have captured it by force; it makes no difference where they came from or how they are thought to be inspired or to what grandeur and glory they aspire. They are men, and so their powers are limited. And the limits of their powers lie a long way this side of omniscience and omnipotence.

It follows that though the ruler may think he has his patents from God he does not have the wisdom or the power of God. Though he has his authority from the people, the potentialities of the human race are not realized in him.

No matter, therefore, how nobly the government may be derived, its faculties are not rendered thereby commensurate with its origins: the king descended from Zeus does not inherit the competence of Zeus, and the elected ruler of a nation is not the mystical possessor of all his people’s genius.

Nor does the declaration of a government’s purposes mean that it possesses the faculties to achieve them. Where there is a wish, there is not necessarily a way. Devotion to an end does not ensure the discovery of the means; pretensions do not magnify men’s powers. And so the real, rather than the apparent, policy of any state will be determined by the limited competence of finite beings dealing with unlimited and infinite circumstances.

Amid the grandiose generalization and passionate willfulness of political debate, it is perilous to lose this humility. It is the guardian of our sanity. The eye must recapture its innocence if it is to see things as they are: to see not the New Deal in terms of its aspirations, but the New Dealers in their actual careers; not Fascism or Communism as ideas, but Fascists and Communists as they govern great nations; to remember that, while ideals are illimitable, men are only men. And when these men, breathing the incense burned before their altars, are tempted to regard themselves as the directors of the human destiny, they need to be reminded of the poet who, after a night in town, wandered into the zoo, thinking rather well of himself as the last product of evolution, until he became sober enough to remember that he was after all

A little thing in trousers slightly jagged.

Governments are composed of persons who meet occasionally in a hall to make speeches and to write resolutions; of men studying papers at desks, receiving and answering letters and memoranda, listening to advice and giving it, hearing complaints and claims and replying to them; of clerks manipulating more papers; of inspectors, tax collectors, policemen, and soldiers. These officials have to be fed, and often they overeat. They would often rather go fishing, or make love, or do anything than shuffle their papers. They have to sleep. They suffer from indigestion and asthma, bile and palpitation, become bored, tired, careless, and have nervous headaches. They know what they have happened to learn, they are aware of what they happen to observe, they can imagine what they happen to be interested in, they can accomplish only what they can command or persuade an unseen multitude to do.

In the prevailing view the men who govern are the agents of destiny. It is they, or others panting to take their places, who are to contrive the shape of things to come. They are to breed a better race of men. They are to arrange abundance for all. They are to abolish classes. They are to take charge of the present. They are to conceive the future. They are to plan the activities of mankind. They are to manage its labors. They are to formulate its culture. They are to establish its convictions. They are to understand, to forecast, and to administer human purposes and to provide a design of living for the unborn. Surely, greater love could no man have for the wisdom of his rulers than this, that he should put his life entirely in their hands.

To magnify the purposes of the state it is obviously necessary to forget the limitations of men. But in reality the limitations exist and the behavior of the state must conform to them. Governments can do no more than they can do. In any one period there is, as it were, no more than a certain capacity to govern. This may gradually be increased by education and the invention of new instruments. There is no doubt, for example, that by means of such inventions as the telephone and telegraph, the typewriter and the printing press, calculating machines, swifter transportation, and the like, the scale of effective government has been greatly enlarged since Aristotle said that a community must not extend beyond the territory which a naked eye could encompass.

But though men at the centre of authority can communicate with more men over greater distances than they could before, it must be remembered that by extending their influence they have complicated their task. These new instruments do not represent additional powders for governing the original community. If that were the case, they might be considered a net gain in the effectiveness of government.

But the fact is that though Mr. Roosevelt has a greater reach than Pericles he needs a very much greater reach. The new instruments at Mr. Roosevelt’s disposal serve his work no better than the tools of Pericles served his. The increase of the scale of human organization has complicated the work to such a degree that it is by no means certain that modern equipment is relatively more efficient. It would be rash, for example, to assume that Mr. Roosevelt can learn more about the needs and desires of the people of the United States through the newspapers and his mail and the reports of his advisers, though they travel by airplane and report by telephone, than Pericles could learn about Athenian public opinion through word of mouth; or that Mr. Roosevelt can convey more of his intentions to a larger proportion of his people by broadcasting his speeches than Pericles could by speaking in the agora.

A steam shovel can move more dirt than a spade, but it does not follow that it will remove a mountain more efficiently than a man can turn over the earth in his garden. If men can travel faster but have to go farther, they do not thereby arrive sooner at their destination. If they can do more but have more to do, they have not achieved their purposes more completely. To some very considerable degree, which obviously cannot be exactly determined, the effectiveness of the new instruments is neutralized by the fact that as the scale of government is enlarged its complexity is multiplied.

Those who formulate the laws and administer them are men, and, being men, there is an enormous disparity between the simplicity of their minds and the real complexity of any large society. Attempts have been made, to be sure, to argue that the whole complex reality may be mystically present in the spirit of a popular legislature or even in the personality of a dictator; that somehow a few minds can be inspired to the point where they are universal and inclusive. Thus the voice of the people speaking through their representatives has been regarded as the voice of God, and, when it seemed a little ridiculous to think of three or four hundred politicians as clairvoyant, the even more preposterous claim has been advanced that some triumphant agitator contains within himself the mind, spirit, and fate of great populations.

All this is not one whit more credible than the notion once held by the whole European civilization that the earth, as Shakespeare said, is ‘this huge stage . . . Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.’ Such philosophy made it certain that the Wife of Bath was to be hardy and lusty because at her birth Mars was in the constellation Taurus. The supposition that the rulers of a state can be fully representative of a whole society is a superstition of the same order, and in practice a more sinister one.

The rulers of any society are private individuals doomed to take partial views. They may be looked upon as standing at the small end of a funnel which at its large end is wide as the world in the past, the present, and the future. All that is relevant to human affairs ought to come through that funnel and into their minds. But in fact at the receiving end no more can pass than they can understand. That is a very small part of the whole. So in the funnel there is a series of screens which sift and refine the stream of data, analyzing and combining them into larger and larger generalizations. The purpose of these theories, summaries, analyses, principles, and dogmas is to reduce the raw enormous actuality of things to a point where the little that the ruler can digest shall be at once intelligible to him and relevant to the affairs for which he is responsible.

Having mastered what he can, the ruler has then to contrive a method of thought which will enable him to invent policies which will by small actions produce large effects. He cannot control every transaction. He cannot issue a specific command to each person. Only here and there can he intervene, hoping that his measures will multiply and reverberate. For in his actions, as in his understanding, he is at the small end of an instrument which at the other end opens to the whole world.


There is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of their existence. Life goes on only because most of its processes are habitual, customary, and unconscious. If men tried to think about everything, drawing each breath deliberately, willing each act before they performed it, it would require such bewildering effort merely to exist that they would sink rapidly to the level of a conscious vegetable. It is only because men can take almost everything for granted that they can inquire into and experiment with a few things. ‘Foresight itself,’ says Whitehead, ‘presupposes [the] stability of a routine. But for the immense economy in which experience becomes habitual and unconscious, men would have neither the time nor the energy for deliberation.’

The thinker, as he sits in his study, drawing his plans for the direction of society, will do no thinking if his breakfast has not been produced for him by a social process which is beyond his comprehension. He knows that his breakfast depends upon workers on the coffee plantations of Brazil, the citrus groves of Florida, the sugar fields of Cuba, the wheat farms of the Dakotas, the dairies of New York; that it has been assembled by ships, railroads, and trucks, cooked with coal from Pennsylvania in utensils made of aluminum, china, steel, and glass. But the intricacy of one breakfast, if every process which brings it to the table had deliberately to be planned, would be beyond the understanding of any mind. Only because he can count upon an infinitely complex system of working routines can a man eat his breakfast and then think about a new social order.

The things he can think about are to those which he must presuppose as the world he can see with his eye is to the far reaches of the heavens and the deep recesses of matter. Of the little he has learned, he can, moreover, at any one time comprehend only a little part, and of that part he can give attention only to a fragment. The essential limitation, therefore, of all policy, of all government, is that the human mind must take a partial and simplified view of existence. The ocean of experience cannot be poured into the little bottles of our intelligence. The mind is an instrument evolved through the struggle for existence, and the strain of concentrating upon a chain of reasoning is like standing rigidly straight, a very fatiguing posture, which must soon give way to the primordial disposition to crouch or sit down.

The mind, moreover, was evolved as an instrument of defense and for the mastery of specific difficulties: only in the latest period of human development have men thought of trying to comprehend a whole situation in all its manifold complexity. Even the intellectual conception is beyond men’s capacities. In actual affairs they have to select isolated phenomena, since they have only limited energy and a short time in which to observe and to understand: out of the infinite intricacy of the real world, the intelligence must cut patterns abstract, isolated, and artificially simplified. Only about these partial views can men think. Only in their light can men act.

It is, therefore, an illusion to imagine a credible meaning in the idea that human evolution can be brought under conscious control. And there can be no illusion except to those who take it for granted that what their minds have failed to grasp is irrelevant, and that what they can comprehend intellectually is all that is necessary in dealing with a situation. No doubt it is true that the human mind could plan a society which it understood and direct one of which the scheme was intelligible. But no human mind has ever understood the whole scheme of a society. At best a mind can understand its own version of the scheme, something much thinner, which bears to reality some such relation as a silhouette to a man. Policies deal with abstractions, and it is only with abstracted aspects of the social order that governments have to do.

For this reason social control cannot ever be regarded as even an approximation to the kind of mastery which men have ascribed to God as the creator and ruler of the universe. It was God’s prerogative to make a world suitable to his governance. Men govern a world already in being, and their controls may best be described as interventions and interferences, interpositions and interruptions, in a process which as a whole transcends their power and their understanding. Men deceive themselves when they imagine that they take charge of the social order. They can never do more than break in at some point and cause a diversion.

The ideal of a directed society requires something much more than a proletarian revolution to fulfill it. It requires a revolutionary advance in the logical powers of men comparable with that which took place when they learned to use algebra or the differential calculus in the analysis of the physical world. In certain of the more recondite branches of mathematical economics perhaps we may have premonitory intimations of the modes of thought that may some day be developed to a point where the social order can be successfully analyzed. But they are at best intimations of what Pareto, who labored in this field, called an ideal goal which ‘as regards the economic and social sciences ... is almost never attained in the concrete.’

No doubt the intimations are promising; it may be that men have picked up a scent which, if followed bravely, will lead them to the quarry and give them a dependable understanding with which to control human society. But those who do not realize the distance that has yet to be traversed from our present abstractions to formulations practicable for the policies of a state in reshaping the social order are like those who, having heard of Dr. Carrel’s chicken, expect soon to find the serum of immortality on sale at the corner drugstore.


Because of the limitations of our understanding and of our power, the dynamics of human capacity follow the rule that the more complex the interests which have to be regulated, the simpler must be the method of regulating them. This is not the current view. It is generally supposed that the increasing complexity of the social order requires an increasing complexity in political policy. This seems to me a fallacy. The truth is that as affairs become more intricate, more extended in time and space, more involved and more interrelated, the interventions of the state have to become simpler, less intensive, less direct, more general. The area left to personal initiative and private adaptation has to be enlarged.

It is a maxim of human association that the complexity of policy must be inversely proportionate to the complexity of affairs. For, while a few things can be governed much, many things can be governed only a little. The more intricate the relations of a society, the less subtle, the less intense, can be the intervention of the state. The greater the problem, the cruder the remedies.

As we pass from the management of the little worlds of our own personality to the greater worlds of public affairs, we are compelled to proceed through a scale graduated from the complex to the simple, the subtle to the crude. A tutor dealing with his pupil, a teacher with his class, a politician with his party, a statesman with his country, a diplomat with the community of nations — the more comprehensive the field, the less individual the method of action. It is in the microcosm that action is most precise; in the macrocosm it is generalized.

Moreover, as action is extended into wider fields, or projected over longer periods of time, as it seizes more intricate matters, it finds the objects with which it is dealing less plastic and more determinate. The choices that an individual can make are far more varied than those which a nation can make. As the mass of those concerned becomes larger, the inertia becomes more profound. The individual is mobile and adaptable to a degree to which no aggregation of individuals can be. Thus the possibilities of policy are inversely proportionate to the complexity of its object. In the selection of a personal policy there are many choices; there are fewer choices in the select ion of national policies, still fewer among foreign policies. For the world as a whole, in relation to its future, no policy is even conceivable.

This principle of diminishing mobility with the increase of scale and complexity may be observed in all human organization. Mr. Henry Ford, for example, cannot change the design of his cheap cars which are turned out in mass as he can change the design of a car made largely by hand the new tools needed to vary the design are too complicated and too expensive. But Mr. Ford can change the design more readily than can a manufacturer who is immobilized by a great capital structure and a heavy load of debt. So, as industrial organization becomes bigger, it must become more inflexible until in its last stages it is hostile to invention, enterprise, competition, and change. It is unable to consider any ideal except stability.

This narrowing of objectives with increasing complexity is the phenomenon of bureaucracy. It is to be found in governments and in corporate business, in armies and in churches and in universities. The more intricate the organization, the more it must renounce its ambitions in order to perpetuate itself.

Thus it is no coincidence that the watchword of policy in recent times should have been ‘stabilization’ — of output, hours of work, processes, markets, wages, prices, and the quality of goods. Though it is commonly believed that it was necessary to organize for stability against the ‘chaos’ of competition, the truth is that it has seemed necessary to stabilize because organization has become so elaborate. As modern nations adopted protection, assented to large-scale industrial organization, with heavy fixed capital charges and large overhead costs, with wages and hours established by law or contract, with rates and prices established by government commissions or by monopolistic agreements, the unorganized and unprotected interests, such as agriculture and marginal labor, had either to bear the whole burden of adjustment or to organize in self-protection.

In such a line of evolution the economic objective can no longer be increased wealth through new inventions, new enterprises, and successful competition. The objective must become stabilization at the existing level of productivity, variety, and economic technic.

Thus it is that many have been persuaded that the importance of cheaper goods is a menace, that technological progress is a disaster, that to produce more is to earn less. They have the conviction that if only they could close the ports of entry, if only they could erect round their occupation a sufficiently high Chinese wall composed of holding companies, mergers, marketing contracts, production agreements, licenses, quotas, labor laws and labor contracts, a wall high enough to exclude new ideas, new methods, new men, and unusual labor, they would enjoy the blessings of stability. They are quite right. A society which has organized itself elaborately must keep on until it has organized itself into rigidity. It must seek stability because it cannot advance. It must imitate the mollusk, which, though it can neither walk, swim, nor fly, and has only meagre ambitions, does seem to enjoy a reasonably well protected and stable existence.


The generation to which we belong is now learning from experience what happens when men retreat from freedom to a coercive organization of their affairs. Though they promise themselves a more abundant life, they must in practice renounce it; as the organized direction increases, the variety of ends must give way to uniformity. This is the nemesis of a planned society and of the authoritative principle in human affairs.

It is not insignificant — on the contrary, it is a manifestation of the inexorable nature of things — that the cult of the state as provider and savior, that the revival of the worship of Cæsar, should flourish in an era when there is a reduction of the general standard of life throughout the world — a disintegration of political unities; an accentuation of regional, of clannish, of sectarian, of ethnic, and of national conflicts; a widespread assault on freedom of inquiry and of debate; a frontal attack from many quarters on the very idea that the individual has inviolable rights, and outright contempt for the radical principle of civilized religions that a human soul in the final judgment may not be judged by the standards of the world.

These phenomena, every one of them the symptom of regression to more primitive levels of social behavior, are not unconnected with that principle of authoritative management which has steadily taken possession of the thought, the actual policy, and the popular emotion of the modern world. Though it is the fashion to believe that because civilization is disintegrating and declining it is necessary to make organization more elaborate and to redouble the impact of authority, the truth of the matter is that the alleged remedy for the trouble is the real cause of it.

No doubt it is occasionally necessary to fight fire with fire by burning over areas in the path of the conflagration, or to dynamite one wing of a house in the hope of saving the rest. In this sense each nation may find itself constrained to raise its tariffs when its neighbors raise theirs, to regulate or subsidize one more industry because others have already been regulated or subsidized. But it is a mistake to think that a man revolving in a vicious circle is an examplar of progress, or that, having convinced himself that he must continue to revolve in it, he is the exponent of a novel and enlightened conception of human affairs.

For more than two generations an increasingly coercive organization of society has coincided with an increasing disorder. It is time to inquire why, with so much more authority, there is so much less stability; why, with such promises of greater abundance, there is retardation in the improvement; why in many lands a notable lowering of the standard of life; why, when organization is most nearly complete, the official idea of civilization is least catholic. The argument that it is ‘chaos’ which compels the resort to authority cannot be true, — even though in an immediate situation it may be the only remedy for a present evil, — because, if it were true, the increase in coercive organization during the past three generations must have brought some increase in stability. But actually the disorder is greater than when the remedy was adopted and there is an overwhelming presumption that it is coercion which is creating the chaos it purports to conquer.

It is no mere coincidence that the cult of a directed civilization should be accompanied by a general foreboding that modern civilization is doomed. Why should it be that, in a time when men are making the prodigious claim that they can plan and direct society, they are so profoundly impressed with the unmanageability of human affairs? Is not one mood the complement of the other? Is not their confidence inflated by despair, and their despair the deeper because of their pretensions?


These observations have their place in the argument because they are necessary to an understanding of that great schism in the human outlook which has shaken the world. The essential difference between the faith that our generation has embraced and the faith that it has forsaken is to be found in what it thinks some men can do to manage the destiny of other men. The predominant teachings of this age are that there are no limits to man’s capacity to govern others and that, therefore, no limitations ought to be imposed upon government. The older faith, born of long ages of suffering under man’s dominion over man, was that the exercise of unlimited power by men with limited minds and self-regarding prejudices is soon oppressive, reactionary, and corrupt. The older faith taught that the very condition of progress was the limitation of power to the capacities of rulers.

For the time being this tested wisdom is submerged under a worldwide movement which has at every vital point the support of vested interests and the afflatus of popular hopes. But if it is true that men can do no more than they are able to do, then government can do no more than governors are able to do. All the wishing in the world, all the promises based on the assumption that there are available omniscient and loving autocrats, will not call into being men who can plan a future which they are unable to imagine, who can manage a civilization that they are unable to understand.

The fact that the whole generation is acting on these hopes does not mean that the liberal philosophy is dead, as the collectivists and authoritarians assert. On the contrary, it may be that it has relapsed into heresy and reaction. And though men may have to pass through a terrible ordeal before they find again the central truths they have forgotten, they will find them again, as they have so often found them again in other ages of reaction, if only the ideas that have misled them are challenged and resisted.

And since humility is the beginning of wisdom, as repentance is the condition of grace, it is only by seizing and holding firmly in mind the limitations of the political faculty that one can understand what is implied in the cult of the Providential State.