Shepherds, Good and Bad

The 46th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.

“They don’t grade fathers, but if your daughter’s a stripper, you &@^#ed up.”

~Chris Rock

The Bible and the ancient Greek philosophers (Republic 343b; Laws 694e; Cyropaedia I 1.2, &c.) alike employ a lot of shepherd analogies.  What can we say?  When everywhere you see sheep, perhaps many things start to look like flocks.

The analogy of shepherding to governing, among the most prominent in philosophy, raises several question, the central being: What makes a good shepherd?  Looking out for the interests of the flock?  Or himself?  (Or the owner, if the shepherd is a hired hand.)  Can their interests be made to coincide?

The sheep analogy is used, though for different purposes, in contemporary political discourse as well.  At the one extreme you have the cynics, who insist that everywhere the people are “sheep”, easily misled, fooled, tricked, exploited, etc. and so must be ruled firmly for their own good because left to their own devices they will just as soon commit mass suicide as secure any semblance of a common good.  At the opposite extreme are the doctrinaire libertarians who insist that people are not sheep, that they should be left alone to govern themselves, that any government beyond the minimal requirements of basic defense and the enforcement of contracts is an insult man’s free will and native intelligence and thus inherently tyrannical and fit only for sheep, which again men are not.

The classical view was somewhere in the middle.  In fact, even as the classics employed the sheep analogy, they acknowledged its insufficiency owing to the differences between men and sheep.  The latter, lacking λόγος, must be ruled absolutely (not to say tyrannically).  The former, at least in the right circumstances, are capable of participating in rule and generally do not thrive but chafe under absolute rule.  Men (or most men) are not wise enough to govern themselves in all things without any external restraint.  But most are also not so animalistically heedless that they require being ruled like sheep to avoid mass catastrophe.

The outlines of this debate could help illuminate a controversy highlighted by Trump’s supporters and opponents.  Both agree that Trump’s success arises from his appeal to globalization’s “losers.”  The core difference is in how they interpret that last word. Supporters say that while it’s a fact that the working class has lost out in globalization, this is less their fault than the result of impersonal forces they can’t control.  Opponents counter that the word “loser” describes these people to a “t.”  It’s the responsibility of every man to evaluate his circumstances and adapt when necessary.  Bad things that happen to him—with the possible exception of instances of blind chance, like a shark attack or tornado—are thus always his fault.  And even those exceptions might not hold.  Why were you swimming in the ocean, or living in Tornado Alley, in the first place?  Certainly, if your neighborhood, community, hometown, region, and local industry collapse all around you and you don’t rally and move away and found a start-up, you deserve what you get.  We may call this latter view Williamsonianism.

The truth in this case is neither one extreme nor the other but a mean.  And moreover, a mean like Aristotelian virtue—one that is not precisely central but is closer to one or the other extremes depending in which virtue we’re talking about.  E.g., courage is closer to rashness than to cowardice and liberality closer to profligacy than to parsimony.

Similarly, whether more or less paternalism is appropriate in a given circumstance depends on the character of the people in question. The sort of folks who populate libertarian chat rooms can for the most part be counted on to govern themselves without getting into much trouble.  At least not the kind of socio-pathological trouble that spreads disorder out to the rest of us.

The lower and working classes are another story.  If they possessed a super-abundance of intellectual, human and cultural capital, they wouldn’t be lower and working class, now would they?  Indeed, those with above-average endowments of these traits who happen to be born into such milieus tend to leave for better prospects, don’t they?  The persistence of lower and working classes in all societies throughout history would, you’d think, suggest the permanence of varying degrees of capacity among humans.  Which would, you’d think, suggest to libertarians that what works well for them doesn’t and can’t work for everyone.  You might think that, but you’d be just as dead wrong as the libertarians themselves.

The American Founders, to whom nearly every anti-Trump conservative pundit appeals for authoritative support, understood this better than their ostensible followers today.  It’s not enough merely to set conditions, get the institutions right, “level the playing field,” “unleash human creativity,” and “let the market work” (feel free to add your own favorite conservative clichés).  The moral conditions of society are every bit as important—indeed, foundational—to the free government that these “conservative” claim to cherish.  To quote but one of a thousand such utterances from the Founders: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”  Eh, one more: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”


Then there are the social conservatives, who will protest that they’ve known this all along.  OK, fine.  But where were you as the moral conditions of freedom were being hollowed out over the last 30 years and more?  On the front lines, you say?  Oh, right—fruitlessly protesting abortion and homosexual marriage but also siding with the cultural left as often as not.  And crucially, either supporting or saying nothing about open borders, job-sucking trade and the rest of the Davoisie “creative destruction” agenda.  Of which the American working class sure can see—and feel—the destruction, but the creativity?  Not so much.  Is it any wonder that they have so little use for you or your preaching?

Libertarians may grudgingly admit that morality and virtue are not quite irrelevant to human happiness, but they doctrinally insist that government has no business saying or doing anything to support either.  And if all other policy and social forces work in concert to undermine both, well that’s just the market being itself and its judgments are infallible.  Strong men adapt and losers lose.  SoCons exalt morality and rail against corruption but can’t seem to see that, or how, other elements of “conservatism” (to say nothing of thoseelements of liberalism they uncritically accept) undermine what they claim to love.

Let’s get back to the Greeks and their sheep for a moment.  In Plato’s Gorgias (515a-520e, more or less; but as you kids say on the ’Net,read the whole thing), Socrates tangles with Callicles (perhaps his most brilliant opponent in any of the dialogues) over the questions of a ruler’s responsibilities and how to judge success or failure.  To summarize without coming to close to doing full justice to all the subtleties, the core argument is: if your rule has made the people worse and not better, then you failed.  That doesn’t mean people lack all moral agency. It doesn’t mean they share no part of the blame for their plight.  It does mean that those who seek and take on the responsibility to govern men must assume, and not disingenuously duck, their share of said blame when things go badly.

Things have been going very badly for a long time for a large part of the American nation.  All of this has happened contemporaneously with the ascendance of what we have only half-jokingly likened to the Slave Power.  In almost every case, that power has gotten the policies it wants.  The result is a great deal of misery.
Man being the social and political animal, he needs government.  Good government makes him better and not worse.  It allows for and promotes the flourishing of the virtues which lead to human happiness as it works prudently to suppress or discourage those vices that lead to human misery.  Government must be administered by men who deliberate about what is good and bad for those under their rule.  At this, the Davoisie has manifestly failed.  It rules exactly as Aristotle says an oligarchy rules: with a view to its own interests, in indifference and even in opposition to those of the whole or of the common good.

Guess what, libertardian and So-Con intellectuals: you deserve much of the blame, too.  I know you’ll all heatedly deny this, just as the Republican Establishment denies not merely that they’re the Republican Establishment but even the existence of a Republican Establishment.  Preposterous! you’ll say.  We bear no responsibility!  We’re mere onlookers!  If we libertarians had been in charge, there’d be no FDA and the police would be privatized!  If we SoCons had been in charge, there’d be prayer in public schools!  Let the absence of these and our other dream palaces stand as proof of our powerlessness!

Yeah, yeah.  But on the issues that matter most to the working class whom libertarians and SoCons alike tut-tut for their moral failures, you’ve both either supported the Davoisie or been AWOL.  You’ve taken it upon yourselves to shape the political deliberations about good and bad, better and worse.  At best, you’ve manifestly failed to prevent grave harm to those whom your deliberations are ostensibly supposed to help.  At your worst, you’re the Ministry of Truth to the Slave Power.  The key decisions, to be sure, have mostly not been yours to make.  But you’ve enabled and defended them and smeared all opposition.  Which is what you continue to do now, under the cover of objecting to Trump’s “vulgarity” and “unsuitability.”

Let us hasten to clarify that we here offer no argument that Trump is not vulgar or that he is eminently suitable to the office he seeks. But, once again, on the big issues that matter most right now, he is right and you are wrong. You’ve failed the very people you excoriate for their failures.  As shepherds, you suck.  Or, in Rockian terms, all your daughters are on the pole.  And you blame them without so much as a cursory glance in the mirror.



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