The English Garden We Call the West
In The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and Moral Order, Donald Devine acts as docent of grand theories of the free world.
by Donald J. Devine (Encounter Books, 384 pp., $24)
Conservative and classical liberal commentators, notably Jonah Goldberg in his book Suicide of the West, have taken advantage of a well-known comparison between Anglo-American constitutionalism and English gardens. In contrast to highly stylized and symmetrical French gardens, the classical English garden, as popularized by Capability Brown, finds beauty in chaos, and in letting nature flourish with minimal human interference. Its political-cultural analog is the free society, in which governing institutions are not designed to quell the naturally occurring functions of human society. Rather than aiming to control the world of social relations like a precisely trimmed hedge, Anglo-American liberalism embraces the messiness of letting a thousand flowers bloom—even at the risk of some being poisonous.
Such a garden deserves an omnicompetent guide, and Donald Devine is up to the task. In The Enduring Tension, Devine offers a whimsical yet thought-provoking tour of the English garden we call the West, whose untamed beauty frequently escapes notice. Devine, who was an accomplished political scientist before becoming President Reagan’s personnel czar, has long been thinking about grand theories of the free world. Accordingly, his opus reads like a docent’s explanation, to the uninitiated but curious, of the significance of every chanced-upon root and branch.
Devine leads us through the landscape not with a rigidly structured essay on the intractable problems of central planning or the conservative movement’s prized dialectical tensions, but with an array of somewhat unpredictable case studies. Devine aims to show why the breathtaking success of the “wild” West is met with both high levels of ingratitude and also calls for government to tame its unruly outgrowths. His sometimes-meandering exploration of that question examines, inter alia, the conflict in Ukraine, the collision of gay rights and religious liberty, and proposals to reform the American administrative state. This method bespeaks the humility of a man who recognizes that no single theory can pinpoint why some civilizations succeed and others fail.
Such breadth might be mistaken for confusion; a more sympathetic reader will take The Enduring Tension’s structure as a fitting reflection of its subject matter. Its message is humble meliorism: Those tasked with trying to balance capitalism and moral order, freedom and stability, need not give up their attempts to bring humans into greater harmony with one another and with the obligations of natural morality. Rather, they should presume little about what they imagine they can design.
The free world is built on a delicate balance. On one side, exerting powerful and visible pull, is the free market. Devine begins his analysis with a close look at capitalism. “Which capitalism?” he asks, recognizing that capitalism has been much more than a mere economic system to its proponents and critics alike. He challenges figures from Marx to Pope Francis on their understandings of capitalism’s shortcomings, while accepting the prominent critique that capitalism is inadequate as a self-sustaining moral system. Devine is not shy about defending property rights in theory and practice as an excellent form of protecting the weak and vulnerable, but concedes that without restraints (often derived from belief in a judicatory higher power), unbounded capitalism can quickly become corrosive and exploitative.
On the other end of the dialectic are the various forms of social order that have emerged over the course of human history. Order, in the sense of hierarchies and responsibilities attached to the roles into which all individuals are born and reared, emerges from the operative units of social organization: A church, state, family, or other source of obligation. Traditionally, citizens of Christian nation-states could expect that a dedication to loving their neighbors (and even their enemies) and to the demands of imitating God would restrain their peers from exploitative actions. Such expectations breed the trust and reciprocation that are prerequisite to human flourishing. Cooperation of the kind Adam Smith envisioned when he wrote of the widespread social benefits that would redound from proliferating free markets is not merely bolstered by, but predicated upon, sources of constraint and obligation.
Therein lies a massive tension. Capitalism will burn itself out should fellow citizens no longer trust their trade partners; yet a society with too many constraints will fail to bear capitalism’s finest fruit. As many conservative philosophers including Devine’s mentor Frank S. Meyer have pointed out, freedom is desirable for its own sake, for allowing an infinite diversity of people to pursue their own highest goods as they see fit. Yet there must be limits to those pursuits. They must be bounded by a common morality that does not condone force, fraud, or violation of certain natural law principles. Recognizing that this tension undergirds liberal democratic capitalism and that policy cannot neatly resolve it is the first step toward defending the American tradition from its detractors—toward seeing the beauty in the English garden.
Whether this tension endures is another story. Devine identifies its primary challengers, which come from new institutions and changes in mass attitudes. Moreover, Devine reports that as “group identities have gained strength,” there has followed a “weakening commitment to crucial capitalist ideals like freedom, property rights, limited government, and the value of hard work.” These developments seem unrelated, but within the context of capitalism’s symbiosis with an order based in common morality, they are clearly connected. When trust and cooperation are said to be rooted in, say, melanin levels rather than shared commitment to ideals that transcend human difference, institutions such as property rights begin to look less like tools to protect the vulnerable and more like tools of exploitation. Put differently, hierarchies can breed a sense of responsibility or resentment; when the hierarchy is believed to serve a higher good, individuals will dutifully accept responsibility. When that higher good is denied in favor of tribal loyalty, hierarchies become much harder to embrace; a sense of responsibility fades away; and those institutions that depend upon a common sense of responsibility begin to look only exploitative.
Truth be told, nobody likes tension. It’s confusing, and seems to leave too many people insufficiently free. For all its paeans to the value of freedom (“fweedom,” in Vice President Harris’s personal apocrypha), the cultural left seeks a hierarchy of its own: Enlightened technocrats to distribute more resources to the oppressed and cultural vanguardists to ratchet up the speed of our acceptable-language-and-behavior treadmill. There is no need to rehash here the fundamentally anti-freedom implications of the recent rhetorical switch from “equality” to “equity.” Yet traditional sources of order and obligation, such as religion and parental authority, remain anathema to the progressive project.
Meanwhile, the cultural right grows ever more prepared to de-neutralize the public square across states and localities, aiming to reorient Americans to a common good whose consensus of support remains unproven. Americans are far too free, some (such as Sohrab Ahmari or Adrian Vermeule) argue, and the right should not shy away from using state power to limit certain forms of expression and conduct. Having nationalized so much of our politics and culture, imbalance in the freedom-versus-order tug-of-war anywhere poses a threat to its endurance everywhere, it seems.
Both these camps argue that they are in fact engaging in the tension between freedom and order—just in a different form than we are accustomed to seeing in America. Devine draws on political scientist Jacob Levy’s work to distinguish between two kinds of free political systems. He identifies a “pluralist freedom,” associated with rugged individualism and Tocquevillian civil society, that “emerges from the bottom,” with individuals pursuing their happiness freely, often by banding together in “independent associations” that “advance their various group interests and act as buffers between the individual and the state.”
Over the past two centuries, Devine argues, American liberalism has drifted away from “pluralist freedom” and towards “rationalized freedom.” Those on the left and right who eschew classical American liberalism for greater order advocate their own brands of rationalization (to borrow Levy’s idiosyncratic use of the word): Progressive rationalists believe they can design a political economy that “works for everyone;” Conservative rationalists believe they can orient all citizens towards the best traditional virtues. Each camp seeks to pare back the social garden in its own way.
Devine urges his readers to take a long historical view of why such efforts are misguided. There is a popular impulse today to claim that the West has transcended the world of pre-political rights and obligations (which the state traditionally exists to protect) and has entered a world in which the state is the source of what we owe and are owed. A good conservative will ask how this happened, in order to assess whether rationalized freedom is what our American tradition prescribes, or if we should try to balance freedom and order by returning to a narrower view of the state and a wider view of the private sphere.
Devine unsurprisingly suggests the latter, for two major reasons. First, the bureaucratic rationalization of American politics over the last century has created as many problems as it has solved. Devine is in his Hayekian wheelhouse when showing the myriad problems of trying to rationalize what is fundamentally supra-rational: human affairs.
The second problem is fundamental to rationalization. It concerns government stretching its arm into the private affairs of individuals. Whereas once upon a time the state was more confined to traditional public affairs (delegated powers of the federal government and traditional police powers of the states), the Civil Rights revolution of the mid-twentieth century blurred the boundaries between the state and the types of private action the state would not tolerate. This was part of a noble effort to amend America’s unfulfilled promise to its black citizens, of course, but was not without its unintended consequences.
Devine gingerly paints a picture illustrating some fundamental problems with government action bleeding into what was once a pluralist sphere: Democratic institutions are not necessarily best at fostering cohesion, trust, cooperation, and all the other things pluralist institutions evolved to support. Majorities, especially of diverse individuals speaking through the blunt instrument of the vote, are ill-equipped to tell people what is right and what is wrong, to guide us through a garden and show us which of its bountiful fruit are sweet and which are likely poisonous.
Government, no matter how rational or enlightened, is not your family, your church, or your local Kiwanis club. By its nature as a largely majoritarian institution, its commitment is primarily to the voters’ will and only secondarily to that which is fair or moral. It falls to those many other institutions to do once again what they did before the modern welfare state took their place. Synagogues, mosques, and churches provide the moral education. Families raise responsible citizens. Democratic majorities should, as a general rule, get out of the way.
Our garden comes with forbidden fruits, and our desire to destroy these can be just as tempting as the desire to taste them. We can try to limit the human freedom to do wrong by rationalizing our way to curated order, maximizing state opprobrium for all abuses of liberty. Devine’s most important lesson is that to do so is asking for trouble. We are better off living within tension, where we are politically free to do some wrong but obligated by a moral code to do right. Nor are we without trusty guides: Tradition teaches us which fruits are poisonous; religion teaches us that our freedoms come with obligations.
In The Enduring Tension, Devine signals his belief that ultimately, the American Judeo-Christian tradition is one of individual moral sovereignty. Order can provide purpose and moral education, but it cannot fully dislodge human choice nor human accountability. Our shared anthropological account must insist that we are fundamentally free but materially constrained. Our garden may grow wild, but by insisting on living within the enduring tension we can subdue it and preserve it.
Tal Fortgang is a law student and Tikvah Legal Fellow.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe