Libertarians, developmentally trapped in a 13-year old's "you're not the boss of me" mindset [Article
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], see the state as overgrown parental ogre, bent on stripping them of all their precious liberties. Historically, however, the reality is quite the opposite--the modern state was the source of the very rights they cherish, even of the very mindset they inhabit.
Traditional societies did not even have a developed sense of the individual as we now experience ourselves, much less practices that accorded individuals rights. People did things not as they individually wished and decided, but as they had always been done. This situation changed radically with the birth of the modern era. The central agent of this change was the modern state. Rather than being the omnipresent great thief of individual rights, it historically was their first guarantor.
That's the short-and-sweet radio-ready version. Here's the rough-and-ready extended dance remix:
I. HISTORICAL CAUSES
The liberal idea of freedom arose slowly with the rise of the modern state and the gradual acceptance of religious diversity in a part of the world where the church was a unique institution and personal faith of peculiar importance.
This diary covers the section dealing with the modern state. Liberty of conscience and religious tolerance is the subject of the next diary. "Man (sic) as a social being" is the third section of part I, and will be covered in the diary following that.
This section begins by describing what is distinctive about the modern state, in contrast to empires and earlier city-states.
1. The Modern State.
The modern state, as no political community before it, is both highly centralized and highly populated; its authority is extensive and pervasive. The modern state includes millions of persons. So, too, did many of the old empires; but these empires were bureaucracies superimposed on a vast number of small communities having a large measure of autonomy, while the modern state controls closely the lives of all its citizens.
The old empires were chiefly tax-gathering and military organizations, though they also maintained some important public works, such as roads and water supplies, and administered justice between persons from different communities or enjoying a special status. These local communities were self-governing even where the authority of the supreme ruler was held to be absolute-as, for example, in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, in these empires, supreme authority, though extensive, was not pervasive, for most people most of the time were not directly affected by it, whereas in the modern state it is extensive and pervasive.
In the city-states, in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere, supreme authority, though pervasive, was not extensive; and quite often a considerable minority of the persons subject to it took part in deciding how it should be exercised or who should exercise it. Supreme authority was "close" to the persons over whom it was exercised.
Thus, the modern state differs both from earlier, authoritarian empires, and from democratic-or at lease republican-city-states.
Next, we encounter a characteristic contradiction, of the sort that peppers the entire history of liberalism. The good old days of simple, binary oppositions are gone forever (if, indeed, they ever existed at all).
Of the modern state it is often said that its authority is "remote." This is true or false, depending on how we take it. The holders of supreme authority are not personally known to the vast majority of the citizens, or are known to them only as much advertised public figures, and to that extent are remote from them. But there are state officials everywhere, and the citizen has more to do with them than ever before. Though he rarely meets any of the men who take the important decisions, he sees pictures of them and reads or hears their words repeatedly. The "state" in one way or another is very present to him.
The tone set here is crucial. A commonplace is presented, and shown to be both true and false. The entire history of liberalism repeats this again and again. We must not simply rely on easy formulations. Liberalism came out of complex situations, in which simple descriptions pointing to one truth quite often obscured another, contrary one.
Again and again we will see that liberalism is a response to tensions. Refusing to take one side is not an endorsement of the other-it is recognition that both sides exist, and neither can be done away with, even if we would fervently wish to do so. This is not an abstract, theoretical, elitist response, but a deeply practical one. In this case, both the remoteness and the immediacy of state authority mattered in the emergence of liberalism.
This state, even where it is federal, is a tightly knit organization in which everyone's rights and duties are clearly defined. It is also quickly changing. To do what is expected of it, it must be highly adaptable and must have elaborate and precise rules for the guidance of its officers. It could not be adaptable unless procedures, powers, and obligations inside it were carefully defined.
So, individual rights get a big initial lift because of the needs of the state.
In the modern state the rights and obligations of the mere citizen, of the man without public authority, are also well defined. He has a variety of social roles; and his rights and duties in them, as a husband or father, as an employer or hired worker, as a man with a particular trade or profession, are defined not only--nor even principally--by custom but also by statute and by contract. He sees himself, and is seen by others, as a bearer of rights and obligations that are or ought to be definite and yet liable to change since he belongs to a changing society and his roles in it also change. Apart from the rights and duties attaching to some particular occupation or role, he has others that he shares with all citizens, or with all of his sex or age; or he has rights and obligations merely because he resides within the jurisdiction of the state.
He is ordinarily more mobile socially and geographically than his ancestors were: he is more likely to enter a profession or trade different from his father's, more likely also to change it, and more likely to move from one place to another. Some of his rights and obligations change with his occupation or place of residence, while others remain the same. His right to choose his occupation and to change it, and his right to move from place to place, are not tied to any particular status or role; they are rights he shares with everyone, or at least with many, in his state.
So, the fact of dynamic change produces a wide range of rights, from the quite specific to the virtually universal. And this is not exclusive to modern liberal states:
Thus, even in the most authoritarian or "illiberal" of modern states, men and women have a variety of rights and duties that they share with everyone, or with most people. These rights and duties are not justified, as are other narrower ones, by appeals to custom or to needs peculiar to an occupation, social role, or locality.
Increased mobility, social and geographical, is associated historically with two developments: with the rise of the modern state, a highly centralized structure of authority which is both "remote" from and "close" to the persons subject to it, and with the emergence of an elaborate legal system in which the rights and obligations of the mere citizen, or of the mere human being, are distinguished as never before from rights and obligations attaching to particular occupations and roles.
The authority of the modern state is "impersonal" in the sense that the persons who exercise it are not concerned with the persons subject to it as unique individuals but rather as belonging to some category or other. This authority differs, therefore, not only from that of parents over their children, but also from that of elders or chiefs in small custom-bound communities.
Here, again is another one of those delicious contradictions. The most context-free, universal personal rights generated by authority that is impersonal in a way that authority has never been before.
Moreover, where it exists, it affects the exercise of authority in the smaller communities within the larger one, even though in them personal ties are still close. It does so partly, but only partly, because the individual is freer to move out of whatever small communities he belongs to. For example, he is freer to leave the parental home.
This, of course, is the thing that conservatives hate the most about modernity--the erosion of their local authority, that which is based, ultimately, on the inability of people to escape from their coercive confines.
State's rights, anyone?
(It's a white thing. You wouldn't understand.)
Though the authority of the state can be the more oppressive for being "impersonal," this "impersonality" is also, as we shall see, a condition of freedom as the liberal understands it, a necessary but by no means sufficient condition. The individual is treated as someone to whom a certain description applies; he is "categorized." Therefore, all he need do to make good his claims is to show that a certain description does indeed apply to him. The quality of intercourse between the possessor of authority and whoever is subject to it is not what it is in intimate and custom-bound communities; it allows both of new kinds of freedom and new kinds of oppression.
Again with the duality. "New kinds of freedom and new kinds of oppression."
Next, a little Venn diagram action, of the subset persuasion:
It used to be claimed for the modern state--whether it was liberal (as in Britain in Gladstone's time) or authoritarian (as in Bismarck's Germany)--that it is essentially a Rechtstaat; a political community in which the powers of everyone having public authority are carefully defined and the citizen has a legal remedy against abuses of power. This claim is no longer made since the emergence of communist and fascist states, whose "modernity" can hardly be denied. Nazi Germany was not, Communist Russia is not, a Rechtstaat.
So, we've got liberalism as a phenomena birthed by modern state, but these states form three concentric circles: the innermost is the liberal state, next the Rechtstaat, then the modern state, generally. All require some adaptation to modernity that sets them apart from traditional social orders and governments:
And yet in the modern state, if we compare it with older systems, there are always elaborate rules defining the rights and obligations, not merely of private persons, but of holders of public authority. Though the private citizen often lacks a remedy against official abuses of power, lesser officials are more strictly responsible to greater ones. There is also a sharper distinction made between rights and duties attached to particular occupations or social roles and more general ones. The citizen is at least encouraged to look upon himself as a citizen. Even though he has little remedy against abuses of public authority, this is not officially admitted. The official claim is that his rights are well defined and adequately protected. The modern state claims to be constitutional; to be so organized that public authority is exercised according to definite rules, and the citizen has effective remedies against abuses of authority. It is part of the myth of the modern state that it is "constitutional," just as it is part of its myth that it is "democratic."
Next follows a prolonged aside on how even states that lack the liberal spirit feel both pragmatic and normative pressures to approximate liberal norms:
No doubt, respect for constitutional rules and for "the rule of law" is dismissed in some modern states as a "bourgeois" prejudice. But this dismissal is always equivocal; for these states also claim to be constitutional. Their rulers are revolutionaries who got power illegally and who keep it by methods different from those of the their predecessors, methods that involve denying to their subjects rights previously enjoyed or widely aspired to, or even proclaimed by their own revolutionary creed. To give the appearance of legitimacy to their power and to achieve their other aims, they always set up a constitution and proclaim rights that they often cannot afford to respect. Within their own circles they take this constitution and these rights for what they are-for pretences serving to cover up the realities of power. Outside these circles, they speak of them differently and more respectfully, denying that they are mere pretences. The respect is usually to some extent genuine; for they would like things to be as they say they are, and even deceive themselves into believing that the reality is nearer the appearance than in fact it is.
Yet behind the appearance, there emerges a structure of power which-precisely because it is centralized, extensive, and pervasive, and has to be adapted to changing needs and purposes-cannot rest on custom but must operate in accordance with definite and deliberately-made rules. Unless it were so, it would not be effective; it would not serve to control millions of people in the many different ways that their rulers want them controlled in order to achieve their diverse and changing purposes. Nor could these people be effectively controlled for these purposes unless many of their rights and obligations were fairly well defined.
If the activities of millions of persons are to be directed to the achievement of large and new aims, if society is to be transformed, there must be an elaborate system of rules for the guidance of both those who govern and those who are governed, and there must be procedures established for changing the rules. There must be some kind of effective political and legal order, even though there is alongside it an order that is not effective and exists largely for show--whether it expresses genuine aspirations or serves to keep up appearances which those who profit by them do not take seriously.
No doubt, revolutionaries who get control of a state sometimes fail of their purposes; they do not transform society the way they want to, and the reality behind the façade is not an effective political and legal order. Nevertheless, if they are really concerned to transform society, they cannot achieve their aims unless they establish such an order.
Then, the account turns back to considerations affecting all modern states, and how these tend to produce a wide range of new individual rights, unprecedented in traditional societies. These include quite personal, civil and social rights, granting unprecedented autonomy to women and adult children:
The idea of the modern state is the idea of an extensive and elaborate structure of authority carefully defined and organized, and deliberately changed to meet changing needs; and there arises along with it the need to define more precisely the rights and obligations of the individual, distinguishing those that are his in some particular capacity from those that are not. These ways of thinking about public authority and private rights are common to all societies in which the modern state arises whether they are liberal or authoritarian. In all of them the individual acquires precious rights he did not have before, or had to a smaller extent, rights not attached to any particular occupation, status, or role: as, for example, the right to choose his occupation, or to choose whom he shall marry, or to decide where he shall live. Women acquire rights hitherto confined to men; and the adult of either sex enjoys a greater independence, taking for himself or herself decisions that used to be taken by parents or by seniors in the family or clan or local community. This severing of old ties, this acquisition of new rights, is inevitable in an economy calling for greater social mobility. Wherever these rights are acquired, whether in a liberal or an authoritarian society, the acquisition is apt to be seen as a liberation.
Democracy, too, emerged from this mix, with the pressures for it running far in advance of the reality (sound familiar?):
The modern state also claims to be democratic. It did not do so in the beginning, if we take that beginning as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The modern state was, in its early days, a monarchy or oligarchy. But in those days it was much less centralized than it became later, and its authority much less pervasive. As that authority increased, as local autonomies lessened or survived only within limits defined by the central power, as the individual found himself more and more controlled by that power, his desire to control it grew stronger. This desire arose first among the wealthy but spread in time to other classes.
In Britain the powers of the king and of parliament increased together, long before parliament became democratic. In France, when the French equivalent of the British parliament was revived and reformed at the revolution, the popularly elected legislature was reduced to impotence by a group of extreme radicals. And for generations afterwards, the only legislatures that were not quickly rendered powerless were elected on a narrow franchise. France had no democracy that lasted more than two or three years before the Third Republic. Yet democracy seemed inevitable long before it came; and even to those who despaired of its coming, or who argued that it could not be genuine, the desire for it and belief in it seemed rooted in social conditions that arise with the modern state. Modern society is by nature democratic; it needs the illusion of democracy even where it cannot have the reality.
Political theory in the West has had a "bias" towards democracy from the time that the modern state arose and long before it became democratic. It has held that the legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed, and has spoken of this consent as if it consisted, not in mere acquiescence or acceptance of custom, but in a specific act, a social contract. No doubt, it began by relegating this contract to a mythical past; and yet contract implies deliberate agreement.
I would argue that the transfer of "democracy" from the realm of the mythic to the actual is the great struggle of our time. This is great frame we should construct around struggles for electoral reform, and around questions such as "what does it mean to make a democratic decision when a majority of the electoral majority believes in fundamental lies?" Such strategies would be perfectly in keeping with long-term direction of pressures toward democratization stretching out across periods of centuries.
This is already clear in Locke's political philosophy, when he says that every man must consent for himself, since the consent of his ancestors cannot bind him. Locke, of course, was no democrat, and qualified his initial assertions so as to draw no democratic conclusions from them. But he spoke of rights that all men have, merely because they are men, and he argued that governments are obliged to protect these rights, and that subjects have the right to resist or remove governments when they fail in this duty. His argument has democratic implications, though neither he nor his contemporaries drew them.
The vast gap between Locke and ourselves today is worth underscoring, particularly since it is routinely ignored. Libertarians routinely smoosh together all the thinkers they cite as authorities, obliterating the historical contexts, and sharp limitations of their pronouncements. This reflects the fact that they are, at heart, authoritarian doctrinaires and rigid ideologues, who rely on venerated authorities and simplified credos, much the same as religious true believers.
Liberals should and (among their more learned ranks, at least, routinely) do take the opposite approach, studying and respecting the advance of liberal thought in a manner similar to the advance of science, respecting those who made important breakthroughs, without limiting themselves to old ideas that have since been improved upon or even supplanted.
At the time Locke wrote, there was a vast gap between his universalist appeal and the actual narrow scope of those who could and would effectively claim universalist rights. This is a chronic condition, as the many differences between the lives of average blacks and averages whites even today attest.
This section concludes with two alternative explanations for this situation. The author prefers the second argument, but I think that both are equally valid, equally true.
Marxists and others, to explain how such a thinker as Locke came to speak as he did, have said that a rising class, though themselves a minority, when they challenge the supremacy of another class, try to gain popularity by using arguments that appeal to the people generally. They try to make the interest of their class look as if it were the interest of all. This is what happened in the seventeenth century, when the rising bourgeoisie challenged the supremacy of the old nobility, especially in England. Rights that could in fact, given social conditions at that time, be exercised effectively only by the wealthy and the educated were claimed for the whole people, or for some part of them supposed to be acting as their representatives.
This Marxist argument is akin to another, which has perhaps more to be said for it. According to this second argument, a new kind of economy and social order required the assertion of rights to be shared by all, or by all adult males, regardless of status, occupation, or wealth. Though this economy and social order allow of great inequalities of status, wealth, and education, there are rights that all men must have if the economy and social order are to function properly. These rights are asserted in all societies where commerce and industry are growing fast, and there is increasing social mobility; where the least educated are required to be literate, and where the maintenance of social discipline takes the form of the modern state.
In short, what this section shows is that there are powerful, systematic, historical forces promoting the spread of individual rights, personal autonomy, and democratic self-government. These forces come from the unfolding of history itself. But they also give rise to normative demands that come increasingly from individuals. The liberal tradition thus arises out of history, but then becomes a conscious force, an actor on the stage of history, moving forward demands that are also being pressed by the nature of the changing social world.
At the same time, as this last section indicates, there are critics who note that liberalism is not quite as universalist as it would like to claim. While some elements of the radical tradition are anti-liberal, as other parts of this section allude to, other elements are ultra-liberal, criticizing the liberal tradition for producing significantly less in the way of defacto rights than it theoretically promises.
It is this second, ultra-liberal radical tradition, even more empirically grounded than the liberal mainstream itself, to which I belong. The progressive expansion of the liberal vision over time is part of our legacy, though by no means entirely our doing.
The dialogue between liberals and radicals in my tradition is one of the chief engines of progress in social and political thought. Stiffling that dialogue and substituting a dialogue between liberals and conservatives is one of the perennial goals of the right. Once this is achieved--during the McCarthy Era, then again, post Watergate, after the Iranian hostage crisis and the election of Ronald Reagan--the push is on to shift from dialogue to diatribe to monologue and demonization.
Revitalizing the liberal/radical dialogue is one of the most important long-term projects for us to work on, if we want to begin generating profoundly new approaches to the problems we now face. In turn, this investigation of liberalism's history provides a fertile framework for that dialogue, as well as various other discussions.
Spot the two very oblique linguistic referents to "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer," and win an all-expense-paid trip to Smuggsville.