Groen van Prinsterer on the Nature of Civil Authority

Groen van Prinsterer’s conservative political message from the nineteenth century, and in particular his conviction that societal decline and state tyranny are fruits of apostasy, is surprisingly relevant for our current extraordinary circumstances.

The year 2020 has seen the rise of a global pandemic of proportions unknown to this generation. The novel coronavirus has caused havoc in certain parts of the globe, resulting in thousands of deaths. Governments have reacted by introducing the kind of restrictive measures that were unthinkable and unimaginable just a couple of months ago. In most Western nations under a ‘complete lockdown’ most people have only been allowed to leave their homes to buy essential goods like food. The ineffectiveness of this hereunto untried and unproven strategy, however, has recently been pointed out by the American conservative political commentator, Tucker Carlson:

“It’s possible to imagine a mass quarantine might … work if it actually separated people – if citizens were forced to stay in their homes and not have any interaction with other people. But we’re not doing that in the United States. We never will do that here … People would starve to death. Instead the directive we’re living under is this: ‘stay home, except to buy food’. The one place you can go is the supermarket, where, by the way, everyone else in your neighborhood has been this week. From an epidemiological standpoint, this is lunacy … For most people going to work cannot be more dangerous than buying produce … twice a week.”[1]

What we have seen play out over the past few months essentially boils down to governments embracing bad science as a basis for shutting down entire countries’ economies. While selective quarantine of the sick, elderly and vulnerable has been used to fight plagues throughout history, such a complete shutdown has no historical precedent. The negative economic impact these measures will end up having on both the middle class and the poor is almost unfathomable. Years of economic growth is being completely wiped out in months. Thousands of businesses will go bankrupt and people will lose their jobs and homes. A large proportion of the population will become debt-stricken because of this. And the paradigm that characterized this unwise and destructive course of action, has played itself out as a prophetic fulfillment of the core message of Groen’s socio-political theory, namely that forsaking the supremacy of the divine, transcendent moral order as the authoritative standard for societal and political arrangements in favor of the supremacy of man conflicts with divine ordinances and leads to anarchy from which government tyranny alone offers liberation.[2]

First, the entire concept of establishing a national lockdown is implicitly based in the social contract theory, namely that society owes its existence to the surrendering of the rights of otherwise free, autonomous and unbound individuals to the state. Countering this, Anti-Revolutionary conservatives like Groen and Edmund Burke had always emphasized the need for intermediary institutions between the individual and the state as protection for the former against an overreach by latter, such as guilds. While some jobs might be more risky during a serious pandemic, most people would probably not have any greater chance of getting infected at work than at the supermarket. Instead of a centralized lockdown paralyzing the economy, guilds or guild-like institutions would have been able to come up with industry specific rules and regulations, taking into account both the safety of the workforce, as well as the economic impact on the industry. Sadly the French Revolution destroyed these structures and we have never seen their restoration since.

Secondly, while we are told that the purpose of these lockdowns is to save lives, we must realize that when it comes to the “lives versus economy” debate regarding whether to continue the lockdowns or not, we are essentially dealing with a false dichotomy. The economy is not an abstraction, it is the sum total of productive human activity. If economic activity is shut down for long enough, the resultant economic depression in itself will lead to thousands of lives lost. Furthermore, without downplaying the very real threat this pandemic poses to many members of society, it has to be recognized that many of our ancestors fought at great risk – often a far greater risk than the risk of dying from a coronavirus – to achieve the very liberties that are now being threatened by the prospect of extended lockdowns.

Thirdly, the counter-productive nature of national lockdowns as well as the lack of appropriate appreciation of the importance of natural and herd immunity among most government-funded scientists has recently been pointed out by a host of scientists from around the world. For example, professors Wesley Pegden (Carnegie Mellon University), Maria Chikina (University of Pittsburg) have criticized the lockdown strategy by stating that

“as long as a large majority of the population remains uninfected, lifting containment measures will lead to an epidemic almost as large as would happen without having mitigations in place at all.”[3]

The lockdowns may be flattening the curve somewhat but, as Pegden and Chikina conclude, the “mitigations themselves are not saving lives”.[4] The flawed science behind these lockdowns is itself a result of an anthropocentric overreach by a majority of medical scientists manifesting in a disregard for the value of extremely basic natural biological processes. Science has, in many regards, actually been weakened by the idea of imprinting a human stamp on all life in an attempt to gain independence from divinely ordained natural laws.

Fourthly, the net result is an even larger and more prominent role for the state in our society. Lockdowns like these may be completely relaxed after the pandemic is over, but it has laid the precedent for increased intervention by the centralized state. The current crisis actually required strong local solutions, but centralized control has long been making these increasingly difficult. By means of the state’s economic interventions – helpful as they might seem at first glance – a dependent population of debt slaves is created.

Finally, the extent of the crisis could have been avoided had it not been for the religious attachment to the sacred liberal principle of open borders, which greatly contributed to the spread of the pandemic, and without which we wouldn’t even be having a discussion on lockdown measures. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, is an example of a national leader who has rightly identified a lack of border control as a major cause for the spread of the pandemic.[5] This is evident in the fact that as late as 26 January, a leading member of the US government’s Coronavirus Task Force, Anthony Fauci, said that the novel coronavirus “isn’t something the American public needs to worry about or be frightened about[,] [b]ecause we have ways of preparing and screening of people coming in [from China].”[6] This shows how a nation without external borders effectively generates the anarchy necessary to set up more internal ones.

In these developments the growth of anarchy through the application of liberal abstractions removed from reality is evident. And, like Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer theorized, increased dependence upon and control by the centralized state, and consequently a loss of liberty, is the inevitable net result. All of this is ultimately a lesson in the truth and practicality of conservatism.

Citations & References [1]
[2] See Groen van Prinsterer, Ongeloof en Revolutie (Barneveld: Nederlands Dagblad, 2008), 28.
[4] Ibid.

Jan Adriaan Schlebusch

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Jan Adriaan Schlebusch is a Christian philosopher and historian. Born in 1989 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, he grew up on a cattle ranch near the city. Between 2008 and 2013, he completed a BA (Theology), a BA Honors (Latin), and an MA (Philosophy) at the University of the Free State. In 2018, he graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. The title of his doctoral dissertation was “Strategic narratives: Groen van Prinsterer as Nineteenth-Century Statesman-Historian.” He has published several peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Trajecta and the Journal for Christian Scholarship among others. He is a senior researcher at the Pactum Institute and a visiting fellow with the Neo-Calvinism Research Institute.

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