The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Noblesse Oblige

On July 13, 2012, Barack Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States, in the midst of his campaign for re-election, appears to have decided to take a break from trying to win the votes of the American people and to persuade them to vote for his Republican opponent instead. Since that was essentially what John McCain had done for him in 2008 perhaps he felt that he needed to return the favour. In a speech in Roanake, Virginia he addressed successful American businessmen and said the following:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. (1)

Now, what Obama said was, in the strictest sense, absolutely correct. Nobody who achieves success does so entirely upon their own. The problem is the way Obama said it. The message that comes across is “the credit for all you have accomplished belongs to the government, everything you have belongs to the government.” This is not an unfair interpretation of his words. Obama comes from a school of thought which asserts that government, acting on behalf of society, must take the blame for those who fail and the credit for those who succeed, and must tax the latter to pay for the former.

In the words of that most leporine of authorities, Bugs Bunny, “what a maroon!” To reward failure while punishing success will only result in more of the former and less of the latter. This is not only insane but a perverse inversion of traditional values. This is why those who believe in such foolishness prefer to cloak it in the language of compassion, to appeal to the heart rather than to the head.

Instead of “you didn’t build that”, Obama should have said “you built that, but it would have been harder, probably impossible, for you to do so, apart from the society you live in, including its laws and infrastructure”. That would have expressed the truth he was trying to get across without insulting American businessmen. His ideology got in the way, however, which is unfortunate because it is an important truth.

There is no such thing as a self-made man. You would not have survived your infancy if your parents or guardians had not provided you with your basic needs. You would never have learned how to provide your basic needs for yourself if you had not been taught how to do so. Even if you built up a business from scratch, you could not have done so without the cooperation of others. You would at the very least have needed customers who were willing to do business with you. Very few, if any, are the businessmen who did not require help above and beyond that. Each person also benefits in countless ways from the society to which he belongs – its culture, customs, language, manners, religion, and other shared traditions which provide the cultural environment in which he lives and thrives.

It is important that we remember and think about these things. It does no one any good to think that he owes all he is and all he has to himself and to his innate qualities alone. Indeed, it does him a great deal of harm to think this way. It generates ill feeling between himself and others and it kills such positive traits as gratitude in his heart. This hurts both him and his society. The realization of how much we owe to others and to our society as a whole provides necessary perspective and balance to the credit we properly take for our own achievements.

Perspective and balance are also needed for the liberal ideas of individualism, meritocracy and capitalism that permeate our modern culture. It is these ideas which generate the myth of the self-made man and the idea of “I got where I am on my own and don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Liberalism, with its ideas of individualism, meritocracy, and capitalism, is a form of thought which has come to have tremendous sway over what used to be Christendom, especially the English-speaking part of it. Criticism of liberalism needs to be qualified with an expression of thankfulness that it, rather than its primary modern rival, has tended to dominate our part of the world. The primary ideological rival of liberalism in the modern world is the set of related concepts that consists of collectivism, egalitarianism, and socialism. In a direct comparison between the two, liberalism will always come out ahead.

Under collectivism the needs, rights, and liberties of the individual are always sacrificed to the needs of the group. Egalitarianism is intolerant of quality, merit, and any other positive distinguishing characteristic that is not shared equally by all. In practice egalitarianism inevitably translates into tearing down and leveling rather than raising up and building. Socialism makes all capital the property of the community and declares that each member of the community will “work according to his ability” and “receive according to his need. “ By divorcing labour from reward, in this way, socialism eliminates the motivation for labour, and must replace that motivation with compulsion. Taken together, this set of concepts adds up to universal slavery.

Liberalism is much to be preferred to all of that. Under liberal individualism the rights and freedoms of each person are protected. Equality is not the ideal in a meritocracy, which values instead the freedom of each person to rise or fall in accordance with his innate qualities as reflected in his personal decisions and actions. A meritocracy prefers to encourage and reward the exceptional rather than promote envy, resentment and suspicion against them. Capitalism is based upon the reasonable assumption that under ordinary circumstances each man knows and is able to manage his own affairs better than the government rather than the unreasonable belief that government is somehow able to manage every man’s affairs better than each is able to manage his own. Under capitalism the rights of property owners are legally protected rather than politically attacked.

There are three conclusions that are relevant to our discussion which are to be drawn from this comparison. The first is that of the two modern systems, liberalism is vastly superior to its alternative. The second is that because of this vast superiority we will not be able to find the perspective and balance which we are looking for in liberalism’s collectivist rival. The third conclusion is that we must therefore search for that balance in ideas from the older tradition that predates modernity.

This is a reasonable conclusion. Most, if not all, of that which is good in the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and J. S. Mills has pre-modern roots, for liberalism is essentially an abridgement of the pre-modern English tradition (2). It includes the constitutional and legal protections of the rights and liberties of the individual person that developed as the English tradition evolved. It leaves out, however, much of the classical and Christian content of that tradition which provided the necessary framework for those protections. Removed from that framework, the rights and liberties of the individual were wedded in liberalism to modern rationalism and faith in human progress. The result was a distorted view of human nature and the relationship between the individual and society.

This distorted view is the idea that human beings are individuals by nature and that all forms of social organization are artificial constructions created by individuals for the benefit of individuals qua individuals. This idea contradicts both observable reality and some of the most foundational concepts of the Western tradition of thought within which the English constitution evolved.

It contradicts observable reality because human beings do not enter this world as isolated individuals who only later join social groups. They are born already members of families which they did not choose to join. Human beings are not born as isolated individuals who later join social groups but as members of families which they did not choose to join. The liberal view of the individual also contradicts the idea that a society is an organic whole, that the purpose of the political organization of society is the good of the whole, and that to be truly good the good of the parts must be in harmony with the good of the whole. This was one of the most basic concepts of traditional Western political thought, apart from which the protections of the rights and liberties of the individual, which liberalism inherited from the English tradition, could not have developed. (3)

Without these ideas from the older tradition, the only concept of a good greater than the good of the individual that liberalism was capable of was that of the good of the largest aggregate of individuals. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is how this was expressed in the liberal ethical system of utilitarianism, which made an action’s utility, i.e., its efficiency and usefulness, the test of whether it is right or wrong. Liberalism, with its individualism and utilitarianism, became fertile soil for the concept of the self-made man to grow in.

Now the attitude of “I’m my own man, I got where I am all on my own and I don’t owe anything to anybody” is not an attitude which should be encouraged in anyone. Nor should the attitude of “Society and the world owe me everything I desire.” If liberalism has a tendency to encourage the first attitude, collectivism has a tendency to encourage the latter attitude which is far worse, because the first attitude is merely a rejection of one’s own obligations whereas the latter imposes obligations upon the entire society. Neither attitude should be encouraged in any person but the first attitude is particularly undesirable on the part of those who possess wealth and power. This is so because the consequences, when the rich and powerful refuse to recognize their duties to their community and society, tend to be more far reaching than those of a similar attitude on the part of an ordinary person.

If pre-modern classical and Christian concepts of the Good and of society as an organic whole provide the necessary balance to the individualism of liberalism, and if a simple recognition that no-one could have survived infancy, let alone become successful in life, entirely on his own, provides the needed perspective to prevent a justified pride in one’s accomplishments from becoming an arrogant, anti-social, insularity, is there an idea that provides that perspective where it is most needed, among the wealthy, powerful, and people in high places?

There is as a matter of fact. The idea is called noblesse oblige. Although that French expression may be of relatively recent origin (4) the idea behind it is an ancient one. The literal English translation is “nobility obliges” and what it basically means is that great wealth, power, and social standing come with an equally great responsibility, the duty to behave honourably and morally, and to use these privileges in the service of the greater good of the whole society. The ideal of noblesse oblige is contained within the very concept of nobility itself. The word nobility sometimes refers to a social class consisting of long-established families who possess great wealth, influence, and status, and which usually have been formally honoured for their past service to their country. Other times the word nobility refers to excellence in moral character, particularly a sense of honour, a generous and altruistic spirit, and a habit of consistently living up to high principles. A person can be noble in the one sense without being noble in the other, and more often than not this is probably the case. The standard of noblesse oblige combines the two by saying that those who are noble in the first sense ought also to be noble in the second sense. (5) It is not a description of the wealthy and powerful but an ideal, it is always in the optative mood, never the indicative. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne defines it as “the tradition of linking power and wealth to the ideal of selflessness”.(6)

The concept of noblesse oblige was not completely obliterated by liberalism. Indeed, an argument could be made that it thrived like never before in the capitalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The great American industrialists like steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, and automobile czar Henry Ford, devoted much of their vast fortunes to building universities, museums, libraries and hospitals, to medical and scientific research, and to other such causes.

Carnegie based his philanthropy upon his belief that wealth comes with responsibility. In a famous article for North American Review, Carnegie wrote that “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship” and went on to explain the benefits of capitalism “To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the generation preceding this would have deemed incredible…The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford” as well as some of its shortcomings:

We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. (7)

Socialism is not the solution to these problems, Carnegie, explained, for socialism attacks “the foundation upon which civilization itself rests…the sacredness of property”. It is not, therefore, a question of changing the system that allows such large fortunes to be built up, it is a question of how they are to be administered. The best solution to that problem, he argued, is for those who have amassed wealth, to administer it for the public good, during their own lifetime:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community--the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves. (8)

It is not a matter of just giving money away – that, by itself, would do more harm than good, he argued. Rather, it is applying the same skills of administration whereby a large fortune is built in the first place, to using that money in a way that best serves the public good and benefits others. Carnegie pointed to certain wealthy men as examples of what he meant but he also practiced what he preached and his own example is better remembered today than any of those he talked about.

This, basically, is the concept of noblesse oblige. It is stripped of its feudal trappings and its aristocratic associations, and adapted to American liberal capitalism, but it is still recognizable as noblesse oblige. At the time of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, American capitalism was in its infancy stage. How has this concept fared as American capitalism grew up?

Not well, I am afraid. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Henry Ford displayed a sense of noblesse oblige in the running of his company by offering high wages to his employees so that they could afford to buy and drive the automobiles he was making. Needless to say this attitude does not seem to have survived into the present where corporate executives ask for government bailout money, layoff employees by the thousands, and vote themselves large bonuses and raises all in the same year. The tycoons of a century ago were all proud patriots of the countries to which they belonged. Today, capitalism has gone global, and as corporations have become multinational and now transnational their executives seem to have abandoned all attachment to their communities, societies, and countries. They support the erosion of national sovereignty and the erasing of borders, the importation of cheap foreign labour to depress the wages of domestic workers, and the exportation of factories and jobs. Successful entrepreneurs and other wealthy people still donate fortunes to what they consider to be good causes, and in many cases the causes are worthy ones, but much of today’s philanthropy serves the cause of the one-world agenda.

Men like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford represented American liberalism at its best. They believed in liberalism and saw socialism for the evil it is, but they were still influenced, whether they recognized it or not, by ideas and values from the older tradition, such as patriotism and noblesse oblige. What we are seeing today is what happens when liberalism has run its course and is no longer balanced by these older concepts.

What liberalism has created is a world in which the ideals and values of the older, pre-modern tradition, ideals (9) such as noblesse oblige are more needed than ever before.


(2) Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics”, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays ((Metheun & Co LTD: London, 1962), p. 27.

(3) This concept can be traced from Plato’s Republic, the fountainhead of Western political thought, through St. Augustine’s City of God which text, depicting God’s Kingdom as a city that has as its end a spiritual Good higher than that for which human states are organized, was foundational to the Western branch of Christianity, down to Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the eight books of which, written in support of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, represent the English tradition as it stood just prior to the advent of Lockean liberalism.

(4) According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first known use of this phrase in English was in 1837. Balzac, in the novel Le Lys dans la vallée which was published the year before, called it “un vieux mot” – “an old word” - indicating that the phrase has been around in the French language for much longer.

(5) The reason the same word is used for such vastly different ideas is that the basic meaning of “noble” which is shared by both definitions is that of being “distinguished”, i.e., “set apart from the ordinary”. The act of distinguishing or setting something apart from the ordinary makes that thing recognizable and the word “noble” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb nosco which means “I know” or “I recognize”. Those who are “noble” by virtue of class, are distinguished by their wealth, power, and status, those who are morally “noble” are distinguished by their character.

(6) Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, Democracy Needs Aristocracy (Harper Perennial: London, 2004,2005), p. 211.

(7) Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth”, North American Review, No. CCCXCI, June 1889.

(8) Ibid.

(9) I am using the word “ideal” here in the non-rationalist sense of an idea that inspires the best in people, not in the sense of an idea that one sits down and thinks up of how things can be better than they actually are.

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