Harmony of Interest and Authoritarianism

All human endeavor requires some form of association. Since man is a finite being who has only limited resources at his disposal it is necessary for him to associate with other men in order to further his own interests and further man’s rule over the earth. All men are born into this situation.

As an example taken from the most primitive level, neither man nor woman is capable of providing companionship or producing offspring in solitude and so a form of private association (the family) must be entered into.

Building projects of any significant magnitude require association. It is simply not possible for one man to provide both the materials and the labor necessary to build something as “simple” as an automobile or as complex as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Turning to intellectual pursuits it still cannot be denied that great thinkers, who may seem to do their best work in solitude, are in fact members of associations. What great thinker does not turn, albeit by some median such as books, to the minds of other thinkers and work to some extent with the tools and materials which his predecessors have provided?

But let us not move too fast. Perhaps the reader is not certain what is meant by an association. Definition of terms is necessary lest misunderstanding arise. 16th-century theologian, politician, and theorist Johannes Althusius provides a definition of association:

 The simple and private association is a society and symbiosis initiated by a special covenant among the members for the purpose of bringing together and holding in common a particular interest. This is done according to their agreement and way of life, that is, according to what is necessary and useful for organized private symbiotic life.

— Johannes Althusius; Politica; p. 27 (abridged)

Althusius is fond of the term “symbiosis” and commonly refers to members of an association as “symbiotes.” Such language is perhaps foreign but the idea of “living together” (symbiosis) and “those who live together” (symbiotes) is a very helpful way to think about life in association with others. This association is aimed at the advancement of the common good of those who partake through the furthering of their common interests. This harmony of interests will provide the parameters for the association. Will a business which fabricates metal products be able to associate more effectively with a construction firm that utilizes a large amount of metal or with an artisan brewery? Harmony of interests dictates that the metal manufacturer will naturally seek an association with the construction firm but not the brewery.

Harmony of interests has great bearing on not only economics, but civics, family life, charities, recreation clubs, etc. etc…

For centuries Western nations have prized a social structure which places heavy emphasis on harmony of interest. High levels of social concord  have given way to de-centralization of power structures and increased personal liberty. Because the interests and goals of the various private and public associations which comprise a civilization were in at least pretended harmony it was either not necessary or not possible for one association (such as the civil government) to aggregate all power to itself and force submission from others (such as guilds, churches, families, charities, etc…).

Former Harvard historian Carol Quigley writes in his massive study of the 19th and 20th centuries, Tragedy and Hope,

The nineteenth century had accepted as one of its basic faiths the theory of the “harmony of interests.” This held that what was good for the individual was good for society as a whole and that the general advancement of society could be achieved best if individuals were left free to seek their own individual advantages. The harmony was assumed to exist between one individual and another, between the individual and the group, and between the short run and the long run.

— Carol Quigley; Tragedy and Hope; p. 497

The extent to which this doctrine was believed and practiced in the 19th century produced theretofore unimagined wealth and freedom; but there were several flies in the ointment even then.

The ever increasing humanism of the Western nations combined with the extreme turmoil of the years 1914-1945 began to turn the hopes and fears of man toward the global scene. With faith in a providential and benevolent God broken it became necessary for man to solve all the problems of what then seemed like a very big and very troubled world. The secular doctrines and practices which had provided prosperity and liberty to the largely Christian peoples of northwest Europe were, immediately on the heels of WWII, exported the globe over as the salve that would heal the nations. The idea of harmony of interests was taken from the province and cloister where Althusius had envisioned it and shot gun applied to the entire earth. Economic cooperation amongst nations and the spread of democracy would usher in the new golden age of peace and goodwill amongst men. Three quarters of a century later we can positively state that these visions of a “New Order of the Ages” has failed. But why? What went wrong?

Jefferson’s Caveat

In an 1816 letter to P. S. Dupont de Nemours Thomas Jefferson spilled the beans that America was a land of freedom and prosperity because of the harmony of interests that existed there but that this wouldn’t work for everyone. Speaking about the constitutions being formulated to govern the new nations breaking away from Spain and France in Central America Jefferson writes,

We consider society as one of the natural wants with which man has been created; that he has been endowed with faculties and qualities to effect its satisfaction by concurrence of others having the same want; that when, by the exercise of these faculties, he has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him. We think experience has proved it safer, for the mass of individuals composing the society, to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent, and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named…

Jefferson here roughly equates the foundational structure of the United States with what we saw Althusius and Quigley to say about association and harmony of interest (symbiosis in Althusius.) But when Jefferson turns to commenting on the political provisions set forward in this new Central American nation (the specific nation is never named) he speaks differently:

I suppose it well formed for those for whom it was intended… for us it would not do. Distinguishing between the structure of the government and the moral principles on which you prescribe its administration, with the latter we concur cordially, with the former we should not… I acknowledge myself strong in affection to our own form, yet both of us act and think from the same motive, we both consider the people as our children, and love them with parental affection. But you love them as infants whom you are afraid to trust without nurses; and I as adults whom I freely leave to self government. And you are right in the case referred to you; my criticism being built on a state of society not under your contemplation.

Jefferson quietly boasts on the superiority of the order of society which America was to embody but freely admits that it would not be practical for the more rude people of Central America. He is disappointed that they do not have the same level of political freedom but concludes“I suppose it well for those for whom it was intended.” For Jefferson, responsible action and a common mind leading to harmony of interests was the factor that could allow for political de-centralization. If these factors did not exist, consolidated political administration (authoritarianism) would be necessary to protect and foster order.

The problems which Western nations faced first abroad and now at home stem from the fact that their liberal arrangement of society (by this I mean political de-centralization and the working assumption that most men would usually work towards the common good without being coerced to do so) was not fit for intemperate peoples. How can two men walk together unless they be agreed?

The things which Christians from northwest Europe assumed to be obvious points of common interest were not so assumed and not so common amongst the various peoples of the world. As soon as democracy was introduced into the Congo cannibalism drastically increased. Now freed from the colonial yoke the Arabs descended down from Egypt into Sudan and began an incredible reign of terror and theft. Burma, renamed Myanmar, upon British evacuation, became a nightmare of political terrorism and religious repression. Profit from the nationalization of oil fields in the Mid-East was used to buy weapons and wipe out ethnic and religious minorities. Socio-economic liberalism proved to be a complete disaster nearly everywhere it went.

To make matters even worse, the Western nations who sought to export this liberalism, began to take open and accepting stances toward the various and divergent cultures found the world over. Barriers to the importation of goods and persons from foreign lands were removed and a change began to take place: the harmony of interest which had been found not to exist across the world ceased to exist at home. R. J. Rushdoony comments on the changing nature of Western attitudes, he says:

Our modern outlook thus warps our perspective. For this reason, our federal government thinks nothing of allowing in as immigrants an increasing number of people who are religiously and racially hostile to us. They see no relationship between faith and land. As a result, the United States and the Western world have embarked on a suicidal course. They reject the concept of Christendom and embrace instead the humanistic “family of man,” and thus immigration policies in the U.S. and Europe are based on myths and illusions of a destructive nature.

–R. J. Rushdoony; Numbers: Commentaries on the Pentateuch Vol. 4

The idea of a national or faith-based community fostering a harmony of interests had given way to a humanist family of man and a global spirit of camaraderie. The only problem was that the global spirit of camaraderie only existed in the make-believe world of a very small number of men. And the birds have now come home to roost. As demographics in Western lands change rapidly in our own day harmony of interests seems nowhere to be found and political authoritarianism is filling the void. Having sacrificed our social homogeneity on the alter of “family of man” we awake to find ourselves unable or unwilling to cooperate with those who we are now in association with.

 Openness and tolerance, once virtues when practiced towards those of a common mind, are now vices as Westerners are unable to condemn or even vocalize disapproval of actions and mindsets which are directly undermining the foundations of their own civilization. Having foolishly jettisoned a common faith and found no value in a common heritage the endless stream of “good faith and credit” seems to be slowing to a trickle. And when times of want and necessity arrive in earnest upon a people with such diverse goals, ethics, and backgrounds, political authoritarianism seems to be the only foreseeable outcome. The West, if it is to survive, must come to realize that she may not have her cake and eat it too.

For Further Discussion:


The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.

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