Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Organized Liberty vs. Centralized Government

Statists often equate liberty with a state of near anarchy. This erroneous point of view assumes that liberty is synonymous with lawlessness and license. But on the contrary, it is the authoritarian state of the central planners and the statist politicians that leads to chaos and disorder.

Liberty and anarchy are often-confused among the political class. After all, we can't just have people running around doing whatever they want, can we? Why surely, social tumult and chaos will reign! Such a point of view is intellectual baggage carried over from the progressive era, when "anarchists" were on the loose blowing up buildings and one even assassinated an American president.

Liberty is rarely used by serious political theorists to mean freedom to act however one desires, whether moral or immoral. It assumes that individuals have rights, which the government is charged to protect. A political system founded on liberty is not anarchic, but assumes that power is vested in the citizenry. It is not a system with no government, it is a system of self-government. It is not disorganized, it is self-organized. Yet statists often conflate the absence of government with the absence of order. Due to such popular misconception, we are moved to qualify liberty by adding the modifier "organized."

It is perhaps inevitable that an education system whose very means of functioning is dependent on the state would become systematically biased against liberty, and thus insinuate that it leads to disorder. The reverse argument appears to be that order is brought about by government control.

Yet order and control are not necessarily related concepts. Do fish who swim in schools or birds who fly in formations need guides? "But man is not an instinctive animal," one rightly objects, "man is by nature a rational being." (Even if one argues that man is an "irrational being," this presupposes that man developed rational faculties and is now acting against them, therefore negating one's own contention. Of course, one could argue that civilization developed simply out of holding hands and thinking "happy thoughts.")

What does it mean to be rational? It means that man is a self-guided agent who uses his faculties to perceive and then interpret the world around him in order to survive. As Ayn Rand points out in The Virtue of Selfishness, man is not strong enough to live according to his physical qualities alone, which are comparatively meager to meet the demands of life in the state of nature. Man must use his mental faculties, in other words, he is compelled to be rational.

Man is not by nature an instinctive animal nor a passive being who can live well according to the dictates of others. Man is, as Aristotle put it, a political animal. This implies that he seeks power over his own life; self-empowerment is what a man rightly needs in order to survive or thrive. Yet when given the opportunity, a malignant man may seek power over others.

So what is order among men who seek not only power over themselves, but in some cases, power over others? It is first the power granted to the individual to determine his own life, to succeed or fail according to his own virtues or lack thereof. And second, it is a system of decentralized power where the ambitious can aspire to influence, but the laws prevent the rise of a tyrant who usurps the power of the individual over his own life.

Thus we have arrived upon the idea of divided powers, which James Madison framed so beautifully in The Constitution of the United States. The document embodies a system of federalism, divided powers, state's and individual rights, private property, and checks and balances. But there is more to The Constitution than is made express. It assumes by glaring absence the federal government's lack of power to control the economy, in any other manner than to facilitate trade, sign treaties, regularize bankruptcies, and to levy taxes sufficiently to raise funds so that the government can carry out its explicit duties.

What is assumed in the founding document is that there will be a civil society, which men will color with their freely chosen arts, music, education, businesses, churches, and social gatherings. Men are to spontaneously form those associations that seem best to them to be to their mutual benefit, due to their nature as political animals. Men are to be citizens of the United States, meaning, again to draw from Aristotle, that they will participate in the administration of justice.

When an Aristotelian understanding of human nature is combined with Jeffersonian thinking that power is best decentralized to the local level, because men can more easily agree on matters familiar to them, and when there are fewer of them needed to agree, then we have a political system that approaches the problem of encouraging a free people to remain free from both ends; in other words, we have acknowledged man's political nature, and we have a political structure that incentivizes participation without leading to widespread systematic corruption and centralized tyranny.

It is no small contributory factor to the success of the United States that the American ideal principle of a free market, where private property and the rule of law is respected, has encouraged many ambitious men to seek wealth instead of power. The centralization of power, in the government and in the central bank, has given rise to a destructive symbiosis of government and business, just as Jeffersonian thinking predicted.

Centralized government control creates massive systemic problems for precisely the opposite reasons that a system of organized liberty is conducive to order: Centralized government, by virtue of its very creation, misunderstands the human beings it rules and abstracts them away as numbers to be calculated or inanimate objects to be instrumentalized in social engineering schemes; it also leads to a political structure that issues overly blunt or insufficiently elaborate laws from a center of power that creates unintended consequences over the diverse landscape and for millions of unique individuals. An additional complicating factor for central planners is that the unforeseeable needs, preferences, and actions of individuals make it extraordinarily difficult for bureaucrats or politicians to predict the effects of laws over time.

Thus we can put it simply that centralized government control leads to disorder and chaos over time due to a lack of information on each given individual citizen's characteristics, needs, preferences, and activities at any given point in time, as F.A. Hayek articulated beautifully in his treatise The Road to Serfdom.

For every government action in an authoritarian state, not simply in economics but in such fields as law and social policy, there are millions of reactions. If the government action, or lack of action, is not consonant with productive and healthy human motivation and behavior, then it can lead to societal decay and widespread disorder. Even the wisest central government planner is always a step behind solving problems that naturally arise in the state. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, so to speak.

In contrast, a system of organized liberty assumes that people at any given point in time are autonomous agents, not automatons that can be programmed by the state as it sees fit. The role of the state in a system of organized liberty is not inconsiderable: It must protect the person, his life and his personal property. There is good moral justification for this. In a system of organized liberty, the people are the nation, they are not the property of an all-powerful state. It is unjust on its face that an individual can be born into this world as the property of another. It seems hardly controversial to recognize that each person belongs to himself, including by extension his life and his labor, yet that is the very premise of government that statists implicitly deny.

The individual in an ordered system is free to use his rational faculties to interact and learn in his environment, in a manner that bureaucrats and institutions cannot do for him. This schema ensures that human beings are assimilating and acting on local information, and that no "political architecture" can be erected over a large heterogeneous area that can become unstable at the concentrations of power and collapse the entire system. (This is why such institutions as the Federal Reserve Bank are dangerous; monolithic credit policy ignores infinite heterogeneity in local economic conditions and leads to widespread market instability.)

The actions of a central government in many ways tend to interfere with the individual's learning and adaptation process, which often requires experience of positive and negative consequences for productive and unproductive behavior, respectively. When a central government incentivizes unproductive or even destructive behavior, or attempts to remove the negative results from evil or misguided behavior, the long-term consequences for the nation as a whole is a break with objective reality, which dictates in ways that the state cannot. (When local governments in a republic engage in destructive policies, there is at least the option for the individual of "voting with his feet.")

Thus what is needed for the individual to thrive is the protection of his person and property and a civil society that is an independent sphere of economic, political, and social interaction. In this way, individuals can exert influence over their own lives and correct for real-world circumstances and solve personal and local problems through spontaneous self-organization.

Spontaneous orders should not be confused with democracy, which is akin to rule by mob whim. Democracy fails for much of the same reasons that centralized authoritarian governmental policies fail; and in ruling principle, democratic and authoritarian government are not mutually exclusive political types but actually overlap. Rule of the majority is no different in its consequences for our purposes than the rule of a single tyrant; what we are concentrating on is the use and abuse of centralized power and its tendency to provoke chaos and disorder.

The state sows the seeds for its demise by seeking to control human beings, who by their very nature must control themselves. The state can bully, it can brainwash, it can break things, but it cannot recreate man as a passive being without a sense of agency.

If the state crushes man's ability to use his rational faculties and his desire for freedom to live as he desires, then the state will wither his sense of purpose, alienate him, and erode the very foundations of the authoritarian "order" the state seeks to erect through spreading demoralization, social anomie, moral corruption, economic stagnation, and systemic collapse.

1 comment:

Reaganx said...

="facilitate trade" =

Unfortunately, there are some ambiguous things in the Constitution. A statist would argue that to "facilitate trade" is to subsidize it. A free-marketeer would say that means the opposite. The same applies to the bizarre concept of "general welfare."