When politics is not local, the antidote is natural law.
Many experienced political campaigners stress that all politics is local. This is a useful axiom when both the freedom and the ability to engage politically are relatively widespread. In these situations, the building blocks of political victory are local building blocks, so much so that a pressing local concern that affects people’s daily lives will, at that level, trump other issues. Bob Marshall, author of Reclaiming the Republic (see my review and Thomas V. Mirus’ Podcast interview), was famous for dealing with Northern Virginians’ concern about traffic so that those who were not adamantly anti-life would still vote for him. But important as this insight is, we can see that it tends to define local politics as elections, the winning of which enables one to pursue goals which may not be locally supported.
In the United States and Europe—much to the chagrin of those who fear a triumph of popular opinion over ideology—this axiom also has repercussions in national debates on topics ranging from immigration to free trade. Fortunately, there are still elections to be won, but there is already a growing fear among our elites that political liberty has not yet been sufficiently reduced for society to be safe from ordinary folks who no longer take their cues from their “betters”. The truth is that politics is always local not in its origin and exercise but in its impact, though that impact may never be perceived as a political result.
It is a peculiarity of ostensibly democratic societies that unlocal politics must be framed in ideological terms. (In non-democratic societies, such politics would be a simpler exercise in raw power.) Thus it appears that many elections at the national level are fought over ideas which have little impact on our daily lives. Frequently the issues are either so broad or so distant that few can form a reasonable judgment about the impact of one policy or another on the common good. Moreover, as discussions of human problems become more global, all of us understand their particulars less well, and we understand their solutions almost not at all. In such cases a grasp of particular pragmatic outcomes is insufficient. We also need a larger framework of values which determines whether complex issues are likely to be addressed consistently in either good or bad ways.
To take but one example, most citizens of Western nations do not see the tight connections among such things as human migration, business growth, trade policy, market dynamics, advertising, standard of living, pornography, contraception, broken homes, divorce, abortion, homosexuality and gender theory. They have no coherent vision which particularizes such abstractions. Even if they did, of course, the penny might not drop unless they were actually to see themselves as part of a local community rather than of a transcendent socio-economic class.
But it is precisely this particularization—this recognition of real impacts on real people whom we know as members of a real community—that enables politics to be understood as local. This is in stark contrast to an essentially ideological political culture, which will always generate a regulatory system allowing less and less freedom for self-determination on the local level. The result is a culture in which everything is not local but merely political.
Bureaucracies flourish in densely-populated, highly complex societies which are largely removed from what we might call the more spacious ownership, use and attachment to land. Urban cultures require a significant level of regulation by sheer dint of numerical proximities. When the dominant world culture is largely an interconnection among empowered urban elites, our grasp of human problems and their causes becomes as difficult as our reconnection with our putative roots in particular regions, villages, families, and the various forms of work which contribute to a common good shared by people we know.
In such genuinely local communities the network of functional values is perhaps more easily perceived and traced, but these communities are virtually non-existent today. Therefore, as our way of life floats higher and farther from truly local realities, real and functioning values become more important, not less, for the simple reason that we find it more difficult to discern the impact of politics on particular lives. We live in a statistical age—which, I urge everyone to recall, is the next step down from an age of “damn lies”. Statistics fail to communicate either personal knowledge or the values which define “personal”.
And so it is precisely the absence of real, tested, working values which plagues our society, ensuring that we will never escape from the regulatory bureaucracies which guide us toward ideological destinations defined by politics—a politics increasingly incomprehensible for the simple reason that it is in its deepest reality not local at all.
Quintessentially Local Law
It is just here that we must recognize what many would call a paradox but which is better called reality itself. For the solution to all of this lies in the natural law, which is the only tie that binds universally precisely because—unlike politics—it is always and everywhere supremely local. Divorced from real communities, politics tends to be the handmaiden of ideology, which is nothing but the false universalization of ideas which lack particular substance. But just as politics can so easily become non-local, the natural law is always, everywhere and necessarily local. When world issues are obfuscated by sheer size and distance, if the political parsing is to be done well, it must be done within the structure of values imposed by the natural law.
Despite the sweep of its formal articulation, what we call the “natural law” is nothing but the structure of values intrinsic to being itself, and so to our participation in being. It is universal not because it is thrust upon us from outside like political ideology or class snobbery but because it inheres particularly in each and every individual thing that is. Thus natural law is never optional—except of course in terms of the question raised by Hamlet about the verb to be. To choose not to be “governed” by natural law, is to choose, whether by slow degrees or all at once, not to be.
Even if all politics is in some attenuated sense local, politics is only sometimes perceived as local, and even less often is it controlled locally. Today, in fact, the ideology of politics would insist that it is universal by virtue of being everywhere imposed. But it is the natural law that is truly universal, as we have seen, for the simple reason that each and every “thing” in the universe participates locally in being. This is why the natural law—which is intellectually apprehended abstractly as a system of values derived from being—is the necessary antidote to distant and incomprehensible politics. And it is precisely through holding politicians to the natural law that we dramatically increase our chances of good governance even when we cannot adequately understand the increasingly convoluted chains of cause and effect.
The best way to recover this social glue is through a muscular Christianity which understands itself as both the antithesis and the defeat of ideology. The logical framework of Christian morality is found in the natural law as rationally perceived in the created order, now authoritatively delineated through Revelation, and immeasurably enhanced, in both its apprehension and its observance, by Divine grace. But the natural law is not the product of Christianity; both Divine Revelation and the natural law are rooted in the very identity of God, in whose being all things participate. Judaism’s Ten Commandments are a concise summary of the natural law, for example, and the philosophy of natural law was highly developed—albeit with many social limitations—even in pagan Greece and Rome. Indeed, every person and culture takes at least some aspects of the natural law for granted because it is in their very bones. Take social notions of fairness for example. But cultural patterns obscure other aspects, and personal temptation subverts still others.
Finally, through the recognition of being in which the natural law inheres, those who adhere to the natural law will be far more prone to make politics local again, to judge policy by its impact on real people in real communities, who participate in the gift of being, and for whom the common good depends on a free and open participation in that gift. Politics today has increasingly become specifically unlocal. The art of the possible has become an impossible imposition of cosmic pretensions. Better to return politics to an inherently local system of control. Without the natural law, politics has become a cosmic horror. If we restore a sense of natural law, it should never be worse than a practical joke.
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