Saturday, Oct 25th, 2014

Strong community is the best defense against the Leviathan state

Joe Hargrave on the relationship between the state and the individual

By on Monday, April 20th, 2009 - 863 words.

leviathanAmerica is a country that alternates at times between communitarian and individualist ideological and ethical systems. I haven’t spent much time on the East Coast, but my fiancee who lived there for years picked up on a pattern: the further west in America one goes, the more the communitarian spirit gives way to an individualist one.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a certain amount of self-regard. It is written into our biological makeup and is essential for our survival. It is when certain necessities are elevated to the level of high virtues that anything, including individualism, can become a problem.

More than usual these days I have noticed a number of right-leaning commentators invoke Hobbes’ “Leviathan state”. Every expansion of federal power is said to be a signal that we are moving further away from an original, ideal concept of a limited government towards one that fulfills the Hobbesian vision of an absolute leader with the power to control not only the economy, but how men think and believe.

There is a kernel of truth in these concerns. The size of government, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has grown steadily over the course of the 20th century. While I think there is a good reason for a certain amount of federal expansion, I have no more desire to see a “Leviathan State” emerge than anyone else does.

The problem is that many ignore the tendency of extreme individualism to feed into, rather than provide a natural barrier against, the growth of the state. The Hobbesian view of man as more or less a calculating machine primarily concerned with his own survival, and of the state of nature as nothing more than a state of war of “each against all”, is what justifies the Leviathan state. For Hobbes, Leviathan is always a better option than the horrors of civil war.

As more people abuse their freedoms and society is held in the grip of paralysis, the Leviathan state becomes the more attractive option. While it isn’t an exact parallel, the massive deregulation of the financial sector that allowed it to gamble in risky mortgage-backed securities, and the resulting economic chaos it caused, is what pushed Obama over the top against John McCain. This deregulation was ultimately justified by the philosophy that the pursuit of self-interest would naturally benefit the common good, which Alan Greenspan himself testified before Congress was a mistake.

And so now, whatever Obama may do to regulate the economy, and I support some of his efforts in that regard, he has a popular mandate from the people to do it.

Assuming, however, that less government is better than more government, how do we realistically achieve it?

What the communitarian critique of liberalism (here I mean the classical liberalism of which Hobbes is a, if not the, father) emphasizes is that the community, and not an abstract space surrounding each individual in the form of negative rights, is the natural and organic barrier against an encroaching state. Apart from his nature as a creature of God, man is, in the final instance, a political or social animal, as Aristotle asserts in his Politics. His choices in the end do come down to the Hobbesian war of each against all and its logical conclusion, the Leviathan state, or peaceful and voluntary submission to a local community in which one has a stake and a say.

This means the cultivation of values beyond individualism and statist “collectivism”. The spread of property ownership at the local level will create solidarity among people and give them a greater incentive to solve local problems together. Those without a stake and say, on the other hand, do behave more like Hobbesian man – subject to the ups and downs of the labor market, moving from one place to the next, never fully secure in any particular community or locale.

Everyone uses everyone for as long as it is convenient, and then as soon as a relationship begins, it ends. The labor market outside of the unions and cooperatives does look like a “war against all” and both the losers and the winners in such a war have an incentive to grant more power to an overriding authority; the losers for protections and higher wages, the winners, to keep their position secure.

Communities of ownership on the other hand require everyone from the top to the bottom to come together and forge common solutions to common problems. Everyone has an interest in seeing to it that they places they work, live, and raise their children are well-protected against the stormy currents of the global markets. The ethos of many military units prevails: leave no man behind. Communities may too at time step on individual rights, and no one is bothered more by a petty homeowner’s association dispute than I. There is still a moral and practical necessity for individual space, and a wisely ordered community can easily provide it.

Perfect individualism is as utopian and fantastic as perfect collectivism. A wise and responsible individual liberty is situated within the context of a community. A functional community of “shareholders” is in turn the best insulation against an encroaching state, which will find little to do in such a place.

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Joe Hargrave

I graduated from Arizona State with B.A.s in Political Science and Sociology, and an M.A. in Political Science with an emphasis on political theory.

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