The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Felix Morley on Freedom, Liberty, and Power
Joseph R. Stromberg - 11/10/09
Modern Age Inaugural Issue
An Old Right Stalwart

Felix Morley (1894–1982) was a founder-participant in what has come to be called the Old Right movement, that broad-based reaction to New Deal state-building at home and abroad, which existed from roughly 1933 to 1955. [1] Over his long life Morley produced a considerable body of writing: a half-dozen books, one novel, along with hundreds of political and literary essays and book reviews (many of them for Modern Age), editorials, and opinion pieces. His memoirs, For the Record, were published in 1979.

Morley was born to a well-placed, English academic family in Haverford, Pennsylvania, with a Quaker father (the famous mathematician Frank Morley) and an Anglican mother. Graduating from (Quaker) Haverford College in 1915, Morley saw service in World War I as a Red Cross ambulance driver. Returning to the United States in early 1916, he noted the marked un-neutrality of much of the elite press. After a stint as an officer candidate, Morley left the military to work at the WashingtonPost. Married in 1917, he had four children. He finished the war as editor of the U.S. Employment Service Bulletin. After the war, the Morleys moved to Oxford, where Felix followed the typical program of an American Rhodes Scholar. While there, he studied with Sir Ernest Barker, a leading authority on social contract theory. He had time to travel on the continent and observe the growing German political crisis firsthand.

For much of the 1920s, Morley worked at the Baltimore Sun. Friendly to the League of Nations and the collective security ideal, he became editor of the Washington Post from 1933 to 1940. With the rapid breakdown of the Versailles settlement, Morley concluded that the soundest policy for the United was now nonintervention. Leaving the Post, Morley took up the presidency of his alma mater, Haverford College, from 1940 to 1945.

War, Cold War, and Politics

The New Deal with its state-building reforms and court-packing plan had alarmed Morley, but trends in administration foreign policy disturbed him even more. With a grant from Joseph Pew Jr. of Sun Oil, Morley and journalist Frank C. Hanighen founded the journal Human Events in 1944. Morley now had a vehicle. Early editorials included a critique of the Allies’ unconditional surrender policy, a blistering attack on President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb, and warnings against U.S. intervention in Greece in 1947.

After attending the founding meeting of the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society in March 1947, Morley reflected that the United States had no social class able to restore a relatively unregulated, classical liberal economy. Any attempt to do so would probably involve much corruption to overcome the votes of organized labor. “Nor was it meaningful,” he later wrote, “to say that the GOP was traditionally the party of Free Enterprise, since it was historically linked to monopolists.” Business did not solidly favor any line of economic policy, and it followed for Morley that the best possible leader was someone like Senator Robert Taft, a conservative with strong classical liberal values. Morley’s persistent criticism of U.S. Cold War policies led to a split with Hanighen and Morley left Human Events in early 1950.

Freedom and Distribution of Power

In his book The Power in the People, first published in 1949, Morley undertook to discover the bases of the Anglo-American social form (in the Spenglerian sense), realized as a constitutional, republican, and federal system. He began with a discussion of the different bearing of the words “freedom” and “liberty”—one which is still worth our attention. In Morley’s view, “freedom” refers to status and condition; unlike “liberty,” it did not especially involve the use of reason. A thing might be seen as “free” of physical restraint, but being “at liberty” entailed the added dimension of reasoned choice within a moral framework. This made self-control and responsibility essential preconditions of liberty. To ground a workable system of government on liberty was no easy task. But given the covenantal and Puritan background, Americans had much experience with agreeing to live together under set rules. Morley saw early American history as littered with actual, concrete social contracts—as against hypothetical ones depicted by political philosophers. Here, rather interestingly, Morley says some unexpectedly favorable words on the realism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s version of the social contract.

For Morley, the state is not society. A state differed from other institutions and was “a projection of power” into time as well as space. One concrete result was “a war system” supplying a motive for a state “constantly to enlarge its power ‘in self-defense.’” And the state magnified its power during war, even though war might lead to its own institutional death. Total war was thus the shortest path to the total state. Yet the state was “a physical and not a moral instrument,” even if its “artificial immortality” lent it “spurious authority” as an idol to be worshiped. For Morley, growing statism was both symptom and sign of social decay.

The Primacy of the Domestic

Morley had a deep sense that domestic policy should come first. It seemed clear to him that ambitious foreign policy eroded good order and undermined existing institutions. His essay “American Republic vs. American Empire,” published in the first issue of Modern Age in 1957 (and covertly endorsed by Russell Kirk’s inaugural editorial), focused on the institutional strains of the Cold War system including centralization of power, rise of the executive, and an economy increasingly dependent on war orders. [2] An imperial role was creating intolerable contradictions between America’s system of checks and balances and the centralized and rapid decision-making necessary for empire. To set out on such a course without honestly facing the issue was to invite the rule of a bureaucratic oligarchy and an elective Caesar. We would have to fit our institutions to the imperial mission, or renounce empire.

Morley’s Freedom & Federalism, originally published in 1959, continued the analysis he began in The Power in the People, once more discussing actually-existing American social contracts and making a case along the way for reviving John C. Calhoun’s idea of state interposition. Local autonomies were key bulwarks of liberty in our system of government. Current American policies were nationalizing and centralizing our institutions and politics, raising the question: Could federalism be saved?

Democracy, as currently understood, was part of the problem. Here, Morley’s strictures on the changing American character partly obscure his real case against “democracy.” His main target was the claim that the popular “will” is best secured (and should be) when it is unmediated by institutions or rules blocking expansion of central state power. Morley knew that the people never rule directly, or any other way, in modern states. Accordingly, “democracy,” however direct it looks on paper, produces the actual rule of executives, bureaucrats, party functionaries, and their societal allies. In this system of “polyarchy” (as we may call it), the people participate just long enough to justify acts of state, after which they withdraw until they vote again—each armed with his or her 200 millionth or so share of the “sovereign” power. The rest of the time, bureaucracies neutrally and benignly manage everyone and everything. The chief beneficiary of such unrestrained “democracy” was executive power. The central point, then, was not the feckless masses and their mentality; it was, instead, that intermediate bodies helped preserve our inherited liberties, and with them, a large measure of practical freedom. Thus Morley’s critique of democratic theory addressed modern trends toward Bonapartism and connected once again with a neglected side of Rousseau. [3]

Morley’s Critique of Economics

Several interlocking themes, easily told, unite Morley’s outlook with that the of larger Old Right movement. There has been a tendency, however, to slight Morley’s critical comments on free enterprise. Certainly Morley could be found defending business against encroachment by government. This defense somewhat resembled proto-liberal defenses of aristocratic strata as bulwarks of liberty in that it was not the personal merits or outlook of such strata but their location in the social-political structure that made them useful limits on state power.

On the other hand, and despite writing for the Nation’s Business for some decades, Morley had his own critique of the values and practices of modern American business. As early as Power in the People, he made observed gloomily, “The industrial superstructure is now so great as to jeopardize the foundations on which we have built.” Among its results was an American “cult of bigness” giving false weight to “mere numbers.” “Big Business . . . logically evoked Big Unionism.” Such trends had fulfilled the prediction that reaction against the power of a quasi-feudal industrial estate would inevitably empower the administrative state. He protested, “Industrial and commercial conditions must not be allowed to frustrate the individual spirit of liberty.”

Morley understood the historical role of Big Business as a centralizing and nationalizing force. But sheer productivity was not the essential purpose of a free society. In the United States, productivity had been, rather, a by-product of an older American republican order that presupposed a high standard of individual conduct. And massive productivity had fostered materialism. Morley commented, “If the mass mind is a concomitant of the assembly line, then those who devised the assembly line certainly have some responsibility for its shortcomings.” He continued, “If free enterprise has only a materialistic meaning, then it is doomed.” But, quite unfortunately, somewhere in the nineteenth century, American “thinking, political and otherwise, became less discriminating and more standardized.” The cultural damage was manifold. People lost sight of any obligation to people less well off than themselves and began to view material prosperity as a sign of personal merit. Consistent with this outlook, vocational training prevailed in colleges and schools. Acquisition with no particular end in view seemed the basis of American life. But men are called, Morley cautioned, to produce “moral as well as . . . material wealth.”

Morley granted that markets of some kind were “as old as Society itself” and that free competition was an essential part of economic freedom. But the market was still “only a trading place” in which unsuccessful competitors might in fact “lose a measure of their freedom.” Competition was literally “inhuman”—part of the impersonal and “perfect mechanism” of supply and demand, which can “set values on only those things that can be bought and sold.” [4] It did not encompass important parts of human life and “the incompetence of the free market in pricing nonmaterial values . . . makes men turn to the State to control or even destroy the market operation” [italics supplied]. To the extent that “the spiritual element in business” became less important, “the greater will be political intervention in the economic sphere.” With such observations, Morley came close to raising the problem of social calculation under economics, as opposed to the Austrian economists’ favorite problem: economic calculation under socialism.

And it is just here that questions of scale intrude. Given modern industrial “absentee ownership,” Morley commented, “industry is actually operated by a small managerial group, the more likely to be arbitrary because it is deprived of the discretion of personal ownership.” [5] It was therefore not surprising that many reformers thought government the only available counterforce to business. But Morley saw the New Deal medicine as “far more dangerous than the disease it sought to eradicate.” Creating a more powerful state to rein in big business was “essentially the same mistake that Europe made when it developed absolute monarchy in place of feudalism.” Instead, the solution would be “to break up concentration [in industry], not to magnify it in political hands.” Here Morley’s outlook approached that of the “trust-busting” Justice Louis Brandeis (whom Morley quotes on the next page).

On balance, then, capitalist domination was slightly better than outright state domination. Morley reasoned that private accumulations of power were subject to disintegration over the long run, while the “relative immortality . . . bestowed on the State” made state monopoly a permanent barrier to free competition. Morley’s ideas here point toward the “negative” plan of cutting off privileges available to business, instead of first granting and then countervailing them. He did not pursue farther the problem that the relative immortality, which the relatively immortal state confers on corporations, might arrest his implicit scheme of negative reform before it could fully achieve what he seemed to have in mind.

“Enterprise,” Morley wrote, “is a function of liberty and liberty was not given to Man merely for the enlargement of his ego.” Further: “freedom cannot be expected by the employer unless he is willing to have this concept apply equally to his employees.” He commented that “the record of many captains of American industry is uninspiring,” given how often they “argued for free competition” and “in practice, leaned toward monopolistic operations,” such as tariffs. It seemed clear to Morley that “there has been widespread individual failure if humanitarianism has to be enforced by disciplinary governmental action.” Finally, referring to the “‘boom or bust’ psychology,” he asserted that the “narrow conception of free enterprise” had much for which to answer.

Morley was aware, too, of the mutual institutional mimicry of business and state. Activist foreign policy further enhanced the growing-together of business and state, as Morley already realized by the mid-1940s: “Regardless of economic theory, Big Business would be drawn to the support of Big Government by Big Contracts, especially from the now dominant military establishment.” Recently, political scientist John Kincaid has contrasted Morley’s emphasis on federalism versus centralization with later conservatives’ stress on monolithic national (and world) markets as the guarantor of freedom and liberty. [6]

Covenants, Republicanism, Federalism, and the Rule of Law

Morley’s working materials were republican theory, classical liberalism, federalism, English law, and Protestant Christianity. As used in Morley’s attempted synthesis, they open onto a number of dimensions generally lacking in unalloyed classical liberalism or libertarianism. This is all to the good, even if it leaves us without a convenient label for Morley’s brand of “conservatism.”

1. Morley sought to understand freedom and liberty from inside Anglo-American Protestant traditions. The resulting body of work analyzed and restated American classical liberal and republican theory and practices, with the English Commonwealth tradition and Morley’s residual Quakerism close at hand as background. Morley’s essentially covenantal political theory suggests parallels with political Calvinism generally, from Althusius in the seventeenth century to nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Jacques Ellul. [7] There may be some common ground, too, with Roman Catholic theorists of “subsidiarity”—the idea of leaving problem-solving to the smallest, most local level of government possible, which has become a standard feature of political discourse in the European Union (some would say mostly as idle talk). Of late there has even been some discussion between proponents of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity. Finally, some scholars see, farther back, a tradition of “Christian republicanism” reconciling corporate, communal structures with the rights and participation of actual persons, although what the exact history and sources of such a tradition consist in is in dispute. [8]

With his inherited Anglo-American federalist commitments, Morley was not exactly allied to any of the above. Dutch sociologist M. R. R. Ossewaarde’s distinction between “Westphalian” and “Attic” poetics of space may give us a better vantage point from which to view Morley. For Ossewaarde, the Westphalian outlook centers on power in relation to defined geographical spaces and requires the category of sovereignty. The Attic outlook is about relations between people constituting a community. As Ossewaarde writes:

In Attic poetics . . . there is no such thing as sovereignty and the Athenian state is not a sovereign state. From an Attic angle, sovereign will is not so much “law” as arbitrary will or lawlessness . . . In Attic poetics, the role of “law” is the role of “reason” (nous) itself. [9]

In these terms, Morley’s work seems like an attempt to restate an Attic view on the basis of resources available in English and American political history. If so, Morley surely underestimated the progress already made by the alternative Westphalian (even Hobbesian) model in America by the time of the Revolution and in England considerably earlier. All modern states aspire to absorb and subsume society, even if we enjoyed a brief postponement in North America.

2. Morley was at his most republican when seeking to conserve systemic rules that foster public liberty, where they still exist. He stood opposed to the view of some utilitarian liberals that freedom and liberty have nothing to do with political forms and rules. On the latter view, the failure of the absolute monarch or absolute Parliament actively to oppress us today is a sufficient measure of our effective freedom; and that is enough. Yet the fact that either absolute entity has—or might have—room to oppress us tomorrow ought to give pause. [10]

But Morley’s republican themes were not illiberal. It was not just any old republicanism put forward by enthusiasts of ancient Sparta, Athens, or Rome that he endorsed, and there was little room in Morley’s outlook for the meditations of Machiavelli’s modern admirers. Republicanism, as Morley understood it, is not particularly communal or authoritarian. Instead, Morley’s thinking lay within a historically specific Anglo-American liberal republicanism deeply grounded (he believed) in Protestant Christianity and the heritage of English law; hence his discomfort at growing secularization and the rise of purely instrumental legal ideas.

3. Morley had much to say on the subject of federalism. There is, for example, his excellent point that with increased centralization, the “undemocratic” rules appropriate to a federal distribution of powers become less and less reasonable from any standpoint. Federalism, if revived and sustained, would reverse this literally undemocratic trend and would also provide a much-needed bulwark against centralization and empire. Here it is enough to repeat Morley’s warning in The Power in the People that if the time came when no major party seriously opposed centralized government, states rights and local autonomies would be doomed—and much else along with them.

4. Morley also championed the rule of law. He saw that while the rules and logic of a system, once agreed to and in place, may restrict freedom in the raw sense of sheer mobility and will, they do so to make possible the social and public space of liberty. Law thus potentially becomes the middle term reconciling private freedom of action and public liberty. Indeed, Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori appeals to the ideal of constitutional law—the rule of law—in its pre-modern, judicially “discovered” and nonlegislated mode, as precisely the means of reconciling liberal and republican versions of freedom and liberty. And like Morley, Sartori sees centralization as an enemy, quoting jurist Bruno Leoni to the effect that if “representation” is to mean anything, “there should be a drastic reduction either in the number of those ‘represented’ or in the number of matters in which they are allegedly represented, or both.” [11]

It is interesting, too, that in a perceived crisis, liberals and libertarians will be found defending the legal-institutional logic of inherited liberty-preserving rules, or even whole systems, which never arose (as such) as the result of abstract liberal deduction. Morley, who never committed himself to a purely individualist view of society, would have no adjustments to make in his thinking in order to appeal to the rules. But once again, just as with republicanism, it is not just any old law that Morley defends. It is the specific content of English law as realized in North America, and as carried forward through a series of concrete social contracts. Perhaps what we have here is a “conservative” moment of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre’s reflections on competing and conflicting traditions may clarify. [12]

Ultimate Values

One might get interesting results by developing Morley’s political ideas alongside the culturally conservative aspects of his thought. Here we seem to find an historical realism partially undercut by an understandable residue of American optimism, even American exceptionalism. In Morley’s day, the latter traits were understandable, if not perhaps entirely defensible. The same might said of those liberal tendencies which run through his republican, federalist, and legal ideas. In any case, Morley believed that early liberalism was a logical and nonheretical outgrowth of English Protestant Christianity, a connection which makes it unnecessary to treat Morley’s liberalism separately here. Reviewing the 1972 edition of Power in the People, conservative Francis G. Wilson chided Morley for clinging to the term “liberal.” “Mr. Morley,” he wrote, “would do better as a Christian conservative and libertarian.” [13]

The immediate, concrete value of Morley’s work lay in his ability to spot and analyze trends under way in American political society. He saw that constitutional government withers under Empire. He saw the militarization of the economy running parallel with a “democratization” of the political system that amounted, in fact, to the growth of state power overseen by a Bonapartist executive. As a keen, well-placed, and well-educated observer, he issued many timely warnings to his contemporaries and successors. His critique was not limited to the state, however, but noticed the role of big business in the emerging power system as well as cultural questions such as growing secularism. His most fundamental conclusion was this: we could remain on our current path toward empire and centralization—the transition through which he had been “destined to live”—or “we can come home.” Coming home was his preferred option.

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  1. Murray Rothbard, “Transformation of the American Right,” Continuum, II (Summer 1964), 220–231, and Sheldon Richman, “The New Deal’s Nemesis: The ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians,” Independent Review, I (Fall 1996), 201–248.
  2. Felix Morley, “American Republic vs. American Empire,” Modern Age, I (Summer 1957), 20–32. See also Felix Morley, The Foreign Policy of the United States (New York: American Enterprise Association, 1951) and “Conservatism and Foreign Policy: Either the Constitution or the Policy Must Give Way,” Vital Speeches, January 15, 1955, 974–975.
  3. On polyarchy, see William I. Robinson, “Globalization, the world system, and ‘democracy promotion’ in U.S. foreign policy,” Theory and Society, 25 (1996), 615–665, and on the managerial state, Gianfranco Poggi, The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978), 138–149. On Rousseau, see Bertrand de Jouvenel, “Rouseau’s Theory of the Forms of Government,” in Maurice Cranson and Richard S. Peters, eds., Hobbes and Rousseau (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 484–497, and Giovanni Sartori, “Liberty and Law,” in Kenneth S. Templeton, ed., The Politicization of Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979), 274–289.
  4. See Emma Rothschild Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 138–162, 236–252., and Mark Sargent, “Utility, the Good and Civic Happiness: A Catholic Critique of Law and Economics,” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies, 44 (Spring 2005), 35–55.
  5. Frank van Dun, “Personal Freedom versus Corporate Liberties,” Philosophical Notes, No. 76 (London: Libertarian Alliance, 2006) and Kevin Carson, “Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth,” Freeman, June 2007, 13–18, and Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective (Booksurge, 2008).
  6. John Kincaid, “Felix Morley on Freedom and Federalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 34 (2004), 84–87.
  7. Morley was aware of Ellul’s work. See his comments in Felix Morley, “The Shape of Things to Come,” Modern Age, 8 (Winter 1963–1964), 87–88, and “Review of Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes,” Modern Age, 10 (Summer 1966), 326–328. For modern Calvinist political theology, see M. R. R. Ossewaarde, “Three Rival Versions of Political Enquiry: Althusius and the Concept of Sphere Sovereignty” (ca. 2004) [paper online]. On Althusius, see Donald W. Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 345–347.
  8. See Cary J. Nederman, “Freedom, Community, and Function: Communitarian Lessons of Medieval Political Theory,” American Political Science Review, 86 (December 1992), 9779–986; Antony Black, “Christianity and Republicanism: From St. Cyprian to Rousseau,” APSR, 91 (September 1997), 647–656; Cary J. Nederman, “The Puzzling Case of Christianity and Republicanism: A Comment on Black,” APSR, 92 (December 1998), 913–918; and Antony Black, “Christianity and Republicanism: A Response to Nederman,” ibid., 919–921.
  9. Marinus [M. R. R.] Ossewaarde, “The Rule of Law in Attic and (Post-) Westphalian Poetics of Space,” European Journal of Legal Studies, 2 (2008), 204.
  10. See Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Ch. 2, “Free States and Individual Liberty.”
  11. Sartori, “Liberty and Law,” 251–274, 296–297 (Leoni quoted). And see Frank van Dun, “Political Liberalism and the Formal Rechtsstaat,” 2–36, unpublished paper online, on the limits of merely formal, procedural legalism.
  12. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), Ch. 17–20.
  13. Francis G. Wilson, “The Christian Republic,” Modern Age, 17 (Spring 1973), 206.
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