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The Dangers of National ‘Purpose’

Screenshot: PBS Newshour

David Brooks identifies what he thinks is a great national crisis (via Rod Dreher):

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for.

I am skeptical that America has ever had a single purpose or reason for being, and I don’t know how everyone (or even most people) in any country as large or diverse as ours could have the same purpose. It is difficult to read Brooks’ complaint about the lack of a national telos without recalling his decades-long obsession with so-called “national greatness” and America’s mission in the world, his enthusiasm for big national projects, and his related horror at the prospect of being “just another nation” in the world. Our country doesn’t have to be here “for” something, and the lack of national “purpose” is not a crisis to be averted or ended.

I am quite sure that we don’t want the kind of politics that seeks to pursue a particular end through the government, which Michael Oakeshott derided as telocracy and contrasted with nomocracy:

[F]or the believer in nomocracy, how a government acts is a more important consideration than what it does; while for the believer in telocracy it does not matter how a government acts so long as what it does promotes the chosen ‘end’ in view.

Insisting on having a grand national purpose is what leads to destructive and abusive policies carried out in the name of realizing that end. It is not something that people in a free country need to have, nor is it something that we should want.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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