Now this is good

By skepticlawyer

Once again I’m pimping something regular commenter Lorenzo has written, in large part because it’s an excellent discussion of certain aspects of libertarian ideas that I’ve long wrestled with myself. 

Many libertarians are distrustful of the state, and the things that the state can do. They are worried if someone sees service to the state as ‘inspiring’ or (even worse) sees the state as inspirational per se. I can understand this fear. We give states immense power over us, and even in democracies with constitutional limitations, they cock it up with monotonous regularity. As Lorenzo points out:

This is the paradox of politics: the state is needed to protect us from human predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of all human predators. This is a paradox that can never be solved, but only managed. All claims to “solve” the paradox are dangerous nonsense.

However, states can also inspire, or at least provide the framework for inspiration. This is what Robert Nozick was getting at in his lengthy discussion of ‘a framework for Utopia’ at the end of Anarchy, State and Utopia, and is also one of the reasons why Hayek came up with a ‘dummy’ model constitution at the end of volume III of Law, Legislation and Liberty. Hayek in particular did not like utopianism; he thought it was hard enough just doing the liberal thing, you know, living in the same country/city/street without slitting each other’s throats; anything else was a bonus. Sometimes, too, States are simply necessary:

It is so easy to overlook, for example, how much of the economic progress over the last two centuries has rested on first the Royal Navy and then the US Navy ensuring that the oceans were protected highways of trade. The solution to the problems of power is not to abolish the state but to tame it.

Not for nothing does economist Peter Temin point out that it took until the 18th Century for the volume of trade in the Mediterranean to reach what it had been in the First Century AD. Pompey had swept the sea clean of pirates.

Lorenzo’s piece draws attention to the Aristotelian argument that — sometimes — the state can be a vehicle for the best in us, especially when the ‘project’ in question is one that repays extensive planning. Before I went to Washington DC’s Air and Space Museum (part of the Smithsonian) last month, I had no conception of what this might look like, but now I do. As part of the Apollo exhibit (which is exceptionally good, do see it if you get the chance), the museum replayed the famous JFK speech on the space race where he stated that the US would put a man on the moon within the decade. The speech included (and I am quoting from memory) the extraordinary line about doing things not because they are easy but because they are hard.

I am not American and yet it was very tempting even for me to stand to attention with my hand over my heart. The young American libertarians at the conference — when I repeated this story to them — all agreed that this speech and its fruits represented much of the ‘best’ in them, the achievement of an extraordinary national goal.

Of course it is Aristotelian, and like so much from antiquity, Aristotle is more often wrong than he is right. We have to use him with caution. But I think he was onto something about the state as vehicle — sometimes — for the best in us, and also for the danger of taking it too far. Lorenzo again:

The great sin of Leninism is to seek to abolish politics in the Aristotelian sense. Its enormously delusory and destructive claim that there is a “correct” metric of politics such that people with the “correct” understanding and the “correct” purposes can just be trusted to crank out the correct policies. The cult of leadership worship that is such an inveterate (if variable in intensity) feature of Leninism flows from this disastrous claim: indeed, is a natural manifestation of it.

Do read all of Lorenzo’s piece; it is well worth a visit.

10 Comments

  1. John Turner
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    In the JFK sense we need a few leaders in major economies worldwide prepared to say, “Our electricity generation for all purposes, including greater use of electricity in transportation, will be fossil fuel free by 2035 and it will be reliable”. Maybe they will also need to say that “Probably to achieve this aim the much safer Liquid Thorium Fluoride Reactors will be an essential major part of the generation mix.”

  2. Jason Soon
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    This is the paradox of politics: the state is needed to protect us from human predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of all human predators. This is a paradox that can never be solved, but only managed. All claims to “solve” the paradox are dangerous nonsense

    I agree. This is why I am not an anarchist but a classical liberal

  3. Posted March 25, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    All claims to “solve” the paradox are dangerous nonsense

    The separation of powers is dangerous nonsense?

  4. Jason Soon
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Separation of powers comes under ‘managing’ the paradox, not solving it Adrien.

  5. Posted March 25, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Would you please care to explain, Jason, the functional difference.

    The problem: Once human society reaches a certain scale, custom no longer suffices to establish order. One needs a central authority that can create and enforce codes of conduct in a particular territory.

    Solution: The state.

    Problem: The state then becomes a source of tyranny because those who control and/or have privileged access to the state will use it to their advantage. This is normally to the detriment of everyone else and to trade and civic peace in general.

    Solution: Build a state wherein the different functions are seperated and put into competition with one another. The judges, the police, the legislature all check each other. Build it on the basis of a constitution that limits state power and advocates a law which everyone is subject to.

    Now sure it’s a managment solution. But it is a solution. And one that works well.

    How is this dangerous?

    I’m sorry I simply dislike the whole ‘any attempt to improve things is dangerous’ schtick. If conservatives had their way we’d still be living in caves for fear our huts would collapse. Well they did collapse, but….

  6. Posted March 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, I refer you to a couple of quotes:

    It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.

    and

    Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

    Separation of powers is a way to manage the paradox of politics, not provide a (permanent) solution. The notion that one can “solve” the paradox is the notion that if one does X it goes away. One can reduce the paradox to very manageable proportions, but that requires a certain amount of continuing work and vigilance.

    As for “we cannot improve things” I refer you to my comment in the post skepticlawyer has so kindly spruiked for me that:

    As we contemplate the historically unprecedented mass longevity, peacefulness and opportunities of our lives we can also perhaps grasp Aristotle’s point that politics is not merely a burden: that, on the contrary, it can be a noble calling.

    To my mind, conservatism has three burdens. First, clearly things can get (dramatically) better over time. Second, conservatism, as Hayek pointed out, surrenders the direction of change to those who have an active direction in mind. Third, to be a conservative in the West is to be conservative about the most dynamic civilisation in human history: something of a paradox in itself. Which helps explain why a prudential liberal (Edmund Burke) gets written up as a “conservative” thinker even though he was sympathetic to the American Revolution and had essentially the same politics as Adam Smith, who is clearly in the liberal tradition.

  7. Posted March 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I have addressed at some length how difficult it is to do the separation of powers thing here.

  8. Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Adrien, another way to put it is: are you claiming that the separation of powers has meant that the US state has never been predatory towards any group? Amerindians, slaves, citizens of the Philippines circa 1900 and queers may disagree with you if that is what you want to claim, just for starters.

  9. Posted March 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, another way to put it is: are you claiming that the separation of powers has meant that the US state has never been predatory towards any group?
    .
    No I’m not and your rebuttal is such that I have no response but to agree with it. I stand by my claim that separating powers is a management solution but in the same way that sewage is a solution viz what we do with our shit so we don’t get sick.

    This:

    conservatism, as Hayek pointed out, surrenders the direction of change to those who have an active direction in mind.

    Is an ideal seldom reached. Most conservatives tend to react to any contemplation of change by amassing a mob and chasing whoever said it out of town with the warning that we might take on other forms.

    Those who would change things, of course, are soo much more polite.

    Stupid monkeys.

    Haven’t heard this in a while:

    It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.

    Lucky for us all the people are vigilant and wise. They’re ready, willing and able to withstand any encroachment on their freedom. And what with such fine courtiers as Stephen Conroy and Don Rumsfeld we’ll be fine.

    Nothing to worry about, have a nice day.

    🙂

  10. Posted March 28, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Adrien, I think we have reached a state of furious agreement 🙂

One Trackback

  1. By skepticlawyer » The Libertarian Purity Test on March 30, 2010 at 5:05 am

    […] view of the state: that it can (sometimes) be a vehicle for very good things, as I discussed in this post on Lorenzo’s excellent piece at his […]

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