written by Gerry T. Neal on May 4, 2009
I am a Tory. Not necessarily in the sense of “a member or supporter of the Conservative Party”, but certainly in the sense of being a High Tory in principle and belief, i.e., a “throne and altar conservative”. Enoch Powell, the greatest British statesman of the 20th Century, and himself a Tory (even after he left the party) defined the term this way “a Tory is a person who regards authority as immanent in institutions”. That is probably the best simple definition of a Tory that I have ever come across.
What is authority? It is often considered identical to power but they are not the same thing. Power is effectual influence over the minds and wills of other people. Power can be obtained in various ways. In some cases it is the equivalent of brute strength and operates by the use or threat of force. Other times, power is obtained more subtly.. Regardless of the manner in which it is obtained, however, power does not make the imposition of your will legitimate. Might does not make right. That is where the difference between power and authority lies. Authority is the right to be listened to and obeyed. To illustrate, lets say that a kid is walking to school and a bully shows up and demands “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up”. The kid does so, because the bully is bigger and stronger than he is and is easily capable of following through on the threat. That bully has power. Later, the kid gets home after school. He drops his schoolbag on the floor, throws his coat towards the coat rack and misses, and heads towards his room without cleaning up his mess. His mother sees this and says “Stop right there young man, hang up your coat, and put your book bag where it belongs”. Whether or not the mother backs up her words with a threat of punishment, they carry something the bully’s words never could, i.e., authority. She has the right to be obeyed. If she uses a threat of punishment to back up her command, she is using power legitimately, whereas the bully was not.
To say that “authority is immanent in institutions” as Powell put it, is to say that authority rests with an office rather than a person. The queen’s authority, rests in the office of monarch and not in the person of Elizabeth II who occupies it.
What are institutions? They are the building blocks of society. Most exist in every society, although some are unique to a particular society, and those which are universal take on particular characteristics to suit the society to which they belong. The family is the most basic institution. The church is another basic institution. The highest institution (or set of institutions) in any society is the government, the institution which exists to make and enforce society’s rules, to represent that society’s interests to other societies, and to protect the society from attacks from the outside. In the United Kingdom and Canada, the government consists of the institution of the monarchy in which sovereignty rests and the parliament through which people have a say in how they are governed. Other government institutions carry out the day to day business of enforcing the laws the government makes.
The Enlightenment Project, which marked the beginning of what is called “the Modern Age” launched a war against the institutions of society that continues to this very day. The sophists of the Enlightenment blamed society and its institutions for the ills that have assailed human society through the generations. Some argued that society and its institutions needed to be reformed and reshaped in accordance with ideals thought up by rationalist philosophers, among these being equality, popular sovereignty, the rights of man. Others argued that society could not be reformed, but needed to be razed to the ground, and rebuilt anew in accordance to these same ideals.
Tories recognize the foolishness and danger in all of that. Evil cannot be eliminated from the world by human means. Its source, is not society or its institutions, but the human heart, and so it will always be with us, as long as the present world lasts. In theology, this is called the doctrine of Original Sin, a doctrine taught by every major branch of historical, traditional, and Biblical Christianity – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. The purpose of law and government is not to eliminate evil but to contain it to a certain extent by prohibiting and punishing acts of evil which harm others and society itself. This is, as it should be, a very small role. As Dr. Johnston, the 18th Century Tory wrote “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
Today, government has taken upon itself a larger role, which exceeds the legitimate authority vested in it by tradition and prescription. The “nanny state” watches over its citizens like a mother hen with the aim of preventing them from making mistakes that could possibly injure themselves. Thus, we now have laws against smoking inside buildings and vehicles, laws against drinking and driving, laws against speeding and laws saying one must wear a seat belt in a moving vehicle. The “surveillance state”, in the name of providing us with around the clock security against criminals and terrorists, spies on us night and day. The “welfare state” takes upon itself the responsibility for maintaining our existence from the cradle to the grave.
Each of these expansions of the role and responsibility of government find their origins in some philosophy or another derived from the Enlightenment Project. When the rationalist philosophers began their war against the institutions of traditional society they declared themselves to be fighting for freedom and liberty. But the inevitable result of their efforts has been the creation of the modern state which is the enemy of freedom and liberty. The true defenders of liberty and freedom, the true libertarians, have always been Tories. For our rights and freedoms ultimately are derived from the same source as the authority vested in traditional institutions.
To Christians the ultimate source of liberty and of authority is God. The immediate source, however, from which liberty, rights, and legitimate authority are derived, is the social order, embodied in tradition, and prescription. The word tradition is derived from the Latin tradere – to give up, hand over, pass on. It refers in English to customs, habits, and ways of life, which have been inherited from our ancestors, and which we are expected to keep and pass on to our posterity. Prescription, was defined by American Tory Russell Kirk as “things established by immemorial usage”. Through tradition and prescription the social order, each particular society’s variation on the natural order, is transmitted from generation to generation. From the social order, the institutions of society including government, derive their authority. Note this is the exact opposite of what the modern state and its defenders would have you believe, i.e., that order in society comes from the state down.
The state would also have us believe that it is the source of our rights and freedoms. But when the state is the source of our rights and freedoms, the state can take those rights away. Our real rights and freedoms, are prescriptive rights and freedoms, i.e., rights and freedoms vested in us as individuals, by our membership in a society in which those rights and freedoms have been passed down by tradition. Since tradition and prescription are the source of the authority vested in government as an institution, it cannot take away the rights and freedoms which tradition and prescription have vested in us as individuals, without attacking the source of its own authority. Thus, do tradition and prescription, place limits on the authority they make immanent in the institutions of society.
If we would recover the rights and freedoms that have been taken from us and recover the social order that has eroded away to almost nothing, we must reconnect with the English and broader Western tradition, which the heirs of the Enlightenment Project have done so much to sever us from.