Sobran joins the Rothbardians
, once a leading conservative intellectual and now an obsessed critic of the state of Israel
, has completed his intellectual journey by coming out as a Rothbardian anarchist
. Here he describes his encounter years ago with Murray Rothbard, whose ideas he didn’t fully embrace then, but now does:
Murray’s view of politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe in constitutional government.
Murray would have none of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a “coup d’état,” centralizing power and destroying the far more tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct denial of everything I’d been taught.
But now, Sobran tells us, he realizes that Rothbard was right about the inherent evil of the state and all the rest of it.
To grasp the enormity of this turnabout, consider the fact that Sobran has spent the last thirty years writing an untold number of columns defending the United States Constitution against the forces of modernity that have violated it. Now this same man believes that the men who drafted the Constitution were engaged in a coup d’état.
Continuing in the same vein, Sobran reaches this nihilistic conclusion:
The essence of the state is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as “that which turns a person into a thing—either corpse or slave.” It may sometimes be a necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it.
Of course, Sobran, who is a Catholic, would strongly object to the charge of nihilism. But consider this. Just as the Marxist left denies the legitimacy of the existing human good in the name of some ideal state of society, Sobran denies the legitimacy of the existing human good in the name of something that he considers moral. But this “something” that he believes in—a civilized human society that does not rest on the use of force—cannot exist
, just as the Marxist equal society without private property cannot exist
. So the practical result of Sobran’s thinking, as with Marxism, can only be destructive of the existing human good.
What all ideological nihilists have in common is that they condemn some necessary aspect of the structure of reality as evil and as the source of all that’s wrong in the world. For the Rousseauian and the Marxist, this condemned aspect of reality is inequality and property; for the libertarian, it’s the state; for the Nazi, it’s transcendent morality as transmitted into Western civilization via the Jews; for the modern liberal, it’s racial and sexual differences. The nihilist imagines a “better world.” The present, existing society is founded on an evil lie, and must be destroyed. This conviction liberates the nihilist from all restraints, and thus he starts to indulge in sheer destructiveness toward the existing order of things.
In the case of some libertarians, as we’ve seen in certain discussions at VFR, this attitude amounts to an almost Nazi-like denial of the human rights of people if they happen to live in a large state. Since the large state is evil, it deserves to be attacked, and its people do not have the right to defend themselves. (If this characterization sounds extreme, see this comment from an earlier VFR discussion.)
Sobran’s new-found nihilism relates specifically to the legitimacy of the United States, since, as it turns out, the Rothbardian libertarians are not merely (as is well known) against the Civil War and Lincoln’s saving of the Union—they’re against the 1787 Constitution itself, using words like “criminal gang” and “coup d’état” to describe the men who created our government. In other words, the Rothbardians are not just Lincoln haters, they’re Washington haters.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 04, 2003 07:20 PM | Send
“The present, existing society is founded on an evil lie, and must be destroyed.”
I’m confused — I thought the existing society denied fundamental aspects of human nature, and is therefore considered an “evil lie” by traditionalists? So aren’t you and Mr Kalb opposing the existing society as well, albeit for different reasons?
Mr. Kalb and I have certainly never said anything like what Rothbard and Sobran say, that the state is a criminal enterprise.
It is like the difference between criticism, even radical criticism, and a gnostic-like denial of reality. A traditionalist might say that the American state has gone badly, even radically askew, but he still believes in the basic goodness of the state or in its necessary role in the order of existence, at the same time seeing the things that need to contain the state. The gnostic libertarian, on the other hand, regards the state as inherently evil.
Sobran’s views would place him outside any American tradition except for the anti-federalists of the 1780s and the secessionists of the 1860s. The traditionalist does not reject the American tradition and its loyalties (which Rothbard and Sobran clearly do), but rather sees the flaws inherent in the American tradition (for example, its failure to articulate particularity) along with its greatness and looks to amend it accordingly.
I can’t speak for Mr. Kalb on this precise point, however, since he is somewhat more critical of the Founding than I am.
Your reply was very clarifying Mr Auster. Thank you. I must point out, however, that you and Mr Kalb may have more in common with the paleolibertarians than you think. Most paleolibertarians see the modern secular state as the greatest enemy of the institutions that you and Mr Kalb hold dear — family, church and regional community. The federal highway system, for example, has all but obliterated the character of most small towns by making them accessible to would-be suburbanites. Moreover, the modern state grants legal protection to abortionists, forces us to transfer a segment of our wealth to support total strangers with lifestyles we find immoral or repugnant, force many of our children to attend the public school system where they are indoctrinated with secular beliefs, and enacts federal laws in the name of advancing equality (e.g., set asides and Affirmative Action).
If you look at the state’s track-record in relation to the institutions you and Mr Kalb want to preserve, it does not, to put it mildly, look good. It should be easy for you and Mr Kalb to understand why the state is a natural foe of traditionalism — it places an enormous amount of power in human hands. Of course, if the state did not exist men would still be wicked and dangerous, but they would not have at their disposal an institution in which power is so concentrated and unchecked. Also, reforming the state is impossible and utopian, for to reform the state would require reforming human nature.
“If you look at the state’s track-record in relation to the institutions you and Mr Kalb want to preserve, it does not, to put it mildly, look good. It should be easy for you and Mr Kalb to understand why the state is a natural foe of traditionalism”
I am not a traditionalist but I do share some concerns with them on social issues. In my opinion the problem here is not the state/Federal government, but the people who have been allowed, since the 1960’s (and earlier with regards to public education), to usurp and control it. The answer is not to do away with the state, as paleolibertarians claim, but to retake it and reform it.
Since Mr. Auster has chosen to use me as his ‘Nazi-like’ example in his thread opener, I think it is only fair for me to re-post my rebuttal. Although it amuses me to no end to be held in such low esteem by Mr. Auster, I strongly object to being called ‘Nazi-like’ because it is such a vile association to my person. I thought my being called anti-American, private email aside, was the limit of absurdity from this forum, but Mr. Auster has managed even worse.
BTW, I do appreciate being mentioned in the same post as Joseph Sobran, although I think his drifting into anarchism is ridiculous.
[Note by LA: Instead of the copy of F. Salzer’s very long comment taking up space in this thread, readers can access it in its original location at this address. It is located near the bottom of the page.]
Posted by: F Salzer on January 30, 2003 12:24 AM
Addendum to the original post,
Mr. Auster appears to get rather upset that I would claim Hitler acted for eugenic and pragmatic reasons, but Fredric Wertham, in his book “A Sign for Cain” contends Hitler acted for eugenic and pragmatic reasons.
After having read over a number of histories after the thread on Hitler started, I had second thoughts, in spite of Wertham, and think it is likely Hitler did hate the Jews, but does his hatred toward the Jews make his crimes against them anymore vile than his extermination of the Gypsies? Or does it make it less so? What is more vicious, the cold blooded pragmatic killing of Gypsies or the killing of Jews because of impassioned hatred?
The former will earn a person a colder place in Dante’s hell, and in the real Hell also.
Or perhaps Mr. Auster gets rather upset, ( and this is strictly speculation ), because I brought up eugenics as one of Hitler’s motives; and Mr. Auster didn’t appreciate it because of his own known association with the American eugenics movement.
Although I must quickly add, from my own experience as a researcher and writer on the eugenics movement for HLI while I worked in Pro-Life prior to grad school, and my recent conversations with those still involved, no one considers Mr. Auster anything worse than a ‘useful idiot’ for the crypto-eugenic Pioneer Fund.
But I do find it amusing that Mr. Auster of all people would call me Nazi-like, given my background and his. Not that I haven’t been called much worse by the pro-aborts, but I was a bit taken aback to be called such a detestable name on this forum, even given its predilections to error.
I appreciate Telos’s question. However, I think he is failing to differentiate between opposing the excesses of the state, and opposing the state itself. Thus he goes from saying that “the modern secular state” is the enemy of traditional values, with which I agree, to saying that “the state” as such is the enemy of traditional values, and that’s where we part company.
As I understand it, American constitutional traditionalism—i.e., what I thought paleoconservatism represented when I first discovered it in the mid 1980s—is about resisting the centralizing and unconstitutional encroachments of the modern managerial and egalitarian state and trying to restore a degree of federalism—of local control of local affairs, local mores, and local culture. This would mean, for example, repealing or radically limiting the reach of the 14th Amendment and the Commerce clause. It does NOT mean an attack on the federal state itself and its proper functions (among which are the protection of the political and cultural integrity of the nation as a whole), nor a rejection of the Founding heritage as such. Yet that is what Rothbard and Sobran are talking about. Thus between American constitutionalist traditionalism and Rothbardian anarcho-libertarianism there is an unbridgeable gulf, not only of political philosophy, but of loyalty and identity.
” American constitutional traditionalism—i.e., what I thought paleoconservatism represented when I first discovered it in the mid 1980s—is about resisting the centralizing and unconstitutional encroachments of the modern managerial and egalitarian state and trying to restore a degree of federalism—of local control of local affairs, local mores, and local culture. This would mean, for example, repealing or radically limiting the reach of the 14th Amendment and the Commerce clause. It does NOT mean an attack on the federal state itself and its proper functions (among which are the protection of the political and cultural integrity of the nation as a whole), nor a rejection of the Founding heritage as such.”
This is spot on and is certainly consistent with my own understanding of paleoconservatism and still reflects my own political view. This too is what I thought paleoconservatism was supposed to stand for, but in recent years an alliance of sorts between paleo’s and southern seccessionists, paleolibertarians, and anarcho-capitalists, combined with the inability to deal with neoconservatism on an adult and rational basis (the neocon’s have not helped and often been just as bad it must be said) has in my opinion distorted paleoconservatism from it’s original vision and is at least partly responsible for the growing anti-Americanism from some paleo’s, and the rather bizzare sight of their propaganda sounding increasingly like the anti-American Euro left. For all their differences, paleo’s and neocon’s have far more in common with each other than with anarchists, secessionists and the left, and should be seeking adult dialouge and finding common ground on at least some issues. I am convinced that a degree of reconciliation between these two camps is the only way forward for patriotic conservatives.
Mr Auster, you seemed to have bypassed my concluding remarks. The modern secular state is a natural and inevitable outgrowth of any state. That is, the modern secular state is the inevitable result of concentrating power into the fallible hands of human beings. Even if most of the federal behemoth were dismantled tommorrow, there is little in the way of constraining it from reverting back to its modern, destructive, intrusive form.
In regards to the constitution, John C Calhoun saw through the folly of thinking the constitution could place the constraints necessary to prevent government from expanding exponetially in his Disquisition On Government:
“It is a great mistake to suppose that the mere insertion of provisions to restrict and limit the powers of government, without investing those for whose protection they are inserted with the means of enforcing their observance, will be sufficient to prevent the major and dominant party from abusing its powers. Being the party in possession of the government, they will, from the same constitution of man which makes government necessary to protect society, be in favor of the powers granted by the constitution and opposed to the restrictions intended to limit them. ..of what possible avail could the strict construction of the minor party be, against the liberal interpretation of the major, when the one would have all the powers of the government to carry its construction into effect and the other be deprived of all means of enforcing its construction.” (pg. 25)
You and I agree pretty much agree on the importance of family, church, regional community and ethnic loyalties. Your articles are always interesting, especially when you discuss the essences of liberalism, such as liberalism’s elevation of the human will. These are not subjects most paleolibertarians are willing to touch. I would rather read one of your articles identifying the underlying premises of liberalism than read a paleolibertarian build shrines to capitalism, ad nauseum. But you should at least take seriously the arguments of the paleolibertarians about the state, especially in light of the state’s relations to the institutions you hold dear.
“The modern secular state is a natural and inevitable outgrowth of any state.”
That seems like an odd claim, given the limited duration of the modern secular state within known history. Have paleos embraced a pessimistic version of Fukayama’s end of history?
Telos, did Calhoun propose a solution to the lack of a “means of enforcing” the restrictions that the Constitution purports to place on the government?
“It is a great mistake to suppose that the mere insertion of provisions to restrict and limit the powers of government, without investing those for whose protection they are inserted with the means of enforcing their observance, will be sufficient to prevent the major and dominant party from abusing its powers. Being the party in possession of the government, they will, from the same constitution of man which makes government necessary to protect society, be in favor of the powers granted by the constitution and opposed to the restrictions intended to limit them. ..of what possible avail could the strict construction of the minor party be, against the liberal interpretation of the major, when the one would have all the powers of the government to carry its construction into effect and the other be deprived of all means of enforcing its construction.” — John C. Calhoun (from Telos’ post, above)
“Telos, did Calhoun propose a solution to the lack of a ‘means of enforcing’ the restrictions that the Constitution purports to place on the government?” — P. Murgos
The topics mentioned in this quote by Calhoun and in Mr. Murgos’ post are extremely important, in my view. I’ve never read anything by Calhoun beyond the few standard brief excerpts in high-school/college history texts, and I would also be very interested to know if he proposed some remedy for this grave defect in our democracy. Whether or not Calhoun did, I’d like to know if anyone else did.
I see it as being crystal-clear that, if ever the VFR philosophy does (together perhaps with allied “Conservative” philosophies), realize its goal of influencing the course of events in this and other countries, there will need to be some airtight, foolproof remedy for this problem of how to make it that the central government can never again usurp powers forbidden to it by the written constitution.
If ever the present mess gets sorted out, the people of this country must never again have to live the mortifying experience of realizing after it’s too late that the central government has managed, through some flaw in the original compilation of rules, to get hold of power way beyond what was intended for it.
“…there will need to be some airtight, foolproof remedy for this problem of how to make it that the central government can never again usurp powers forbidden to it by the written constitution.”
The desire for perfect assurances is a human desire; but it is part of the problem not part of the solution.
In this specific case it is (literally) not possible for a text to be enforceable in the way that is apparently desired (that is, independent of non-explicit tradition and human judgement). To be a bit fanciful, suppose that a giant computer controlled robot with invincible powers was created to enforce the limitation of government authority to whatever was specified in a text (constitution). Any time the government attempted to exercise a power not granted to it in the text, the uberbot would prevent it from doing so. The uberbot would perform no other function.
The problem is that a complete specification of legitimate powers is literally impossible. So the construction of the uberbot as described is literally, mathematically, provably impossible.
Epistemically this stems from the fact that any interesting knowledge embodied in a text requires an authoritative tradition and an authoritative magisterium for interpretation, in order to have any meaning at all. That tradition and that magisterial authority literally cannot itself be an explicit, finite text. As humans we have no choice but to live in a framework of authority that includes non-explicit tradition and uncodifiable human judgement. Attempts to sneak around that basic fact of reality are utopian, with all that that implies.
Postmodernism reacts to this basic reality by denying tradition and viewing interpretive authority as arbitrary and unequal. As a result postmodernism ends up asserting its silliness about truth being purely a social construction, etc. Postmodernism is a ridiculous and erroneous philosophy, but like most all philosophies it is based in part in some true insights.
Calhoun is a profound thinker on this problem and his analysis, referenced by Telos, leads to his famous idea of the concurrent majority, in which all the major elements in the state (however defined, though Calhoun was of course thinking in terms of the North and the South), must concur in the passage of laws, otherwise the stronger part of the state will inevitably gather all power to itself. Lani Guinier proposed a similar system, though with the fundamental components of the state being defined as races instead of regions. But would such a system based on concurrent majority be workable? Would such a state be able to act—especially if it contained within it such divisions as existed between North and South in Calhoun’s time, let alone the racial divisions that Guinere would like to place in the Constitution?
This question leads back to why we have a national government in the first place. Washington during the Revolution experienced for eight years the intolerable situation of living under a government—and of trying to lead an army under such a government—that did not have the ability to act, to make decisions, to raise money, to take responsibility. That was why he became the foremost proponent of the need for a national government with sufficient energy within itself to act. This lesson, coming from both the period of the Revolution and from the post Revolutionary period under the Articles of Confederation, became almost instinctive for the main leaders of that time, the Federalists. And so they created a government with the ability to act, and a Constitution that would, under wise guidance, prevent that government from becoming too powerful.
Well, clearly, the fears of the anti-Federalists of that time have largely been largely fulfilled, and the government has expanded—in many key respects—outside the limits of the Constitution. However, I don’t think that leads to Telos’s conclusion that the state by its nature must turn into a gargantuan state, and therefore no state should be allowed.
An excessive fear of power can be as damaging as power itself. Look at what’s happened to Europe, where the opposition to national power (based on the idea that any nation-state is inherently dangerous and aggressive) has led to the post-human bureaucratic hell of the European Union, a system without visible power, without accountability, and so without freedom, and its elites and its subjects are mutating into a new species, Eloi Man, Homo eloiens bureaucratensis.
I don’t think there’s any final answer to these questions. Clearly there is no escape from the need for the state and for the need for Constitutional restrictions on the state. The solution of the paleo-libertarians—no state at all—is not workable in this world. I doubt the Calhoun solution would be workable either. This suggests that the Founders did a very good job, and maybe it was as good as it could be under the circumstances, but it wasn’t good enough. Their work needs to be re-thought and re-articulated, not discarded.
Mr. Auster says:
“Clearly there is no escape from the need for the state and for the need for Constitutional restrictions on the state.”
Well said, though I would expand on it a bit more. There is no getting away from a state. There is no getting away from the exercise of actual human authority in the context of tradition, where everything is not settled ahead of time by explicit rules. Other than complete isolation (every man a hermit), there is no getting away from one person having authority over another in this or that question. All attempts to get away from such things are utopian (that is, they are ultimately nihilistic attempts to escape the fundamental nature of reality).
The best that can be done — literally the best assurance that this world allows — is to accept those things, to have a principle of subsidiarity where authority remains close to the parties affected, to have a respect for tradition and aristocratic authority in addition to respect for explicit textual rules, and to have distributed power so it is difficult for any one part of the authority structure to become despotic. But there are no guarantees except the guarantee that utopian philosophies always lead to tyranny.
I am a lousy storyteller, but I once thought of writing a story in which technological advances allowed liberals to actually get what they want. In my story the world of man became a world of isolated virtual reality chambers (this was back before the Star Trek holodeck) where each man was literally a god, with the freedom to do and have whatever he wanted to do in his own virtual universe, and all other humans were equally free. The story ends with the suicide of the last person, and the cold dead universe carries on without us; or something like that.
Mr. Auster also wrote:
“This suggests that the Founders did a very good job, and maybe it was as good as it could be under the circumstances, but it wasn’t good enough. Their work needs to be re-thought and re-articulated, not discarded.”
For my part I think that focusing on the structural arrangements is one of the initial flaws, though. The liberalism of the founders needs to be discarded, and what is done structurally is less important than what people believe in: what makes up their culture and tradition, and the attitudes they cultivate and pass on to later generations about that culture and tradition. I think any polity with a healthy culture and attitude about tradition will naturally move away from democracy and other forms of concentrated power, and toward that great boogyman feudalism. God warned the Israelites through Samuel that they should be careful what they ask for when they ask for a King, and that the looser arrangement under the Judges had its advantages. That is still good advice, but it isn’t the sort of thing that can be imposed from without — it is an expression or manifestation of culture and tradition moving in a healthy direction, the fruits of good culture rather than its root.
It is these kinds of comments that make this site so helpful and appreciated.
“Eloi Man, Homo eloiens bureaucratensis” — Lawrence Auster
The Swedes are certainly moving in that direction:
After reading that article by Steve Sailer, one has the feeling all it would take to actually bring the Swedes half-way to genuine Eloidom would be simply to physically move the machinery of their bureaucratic government, together with the bureaucrats who operate it, into underground caverns, leaving the hormoneless, marriageless, loveless, bloodless, sexually undifferentiated, zombie-like, indifferent, unfeeling, yet handsome, pretty, blonde, fair Eloi-like male and female subjects of their underground masters on the surface where everything is done for them by those below in return for only a small price — their souls.
I have the terrifying feeling that for the Swedes today (and perhaps who else tomorrow?) there may be no turning back, once on the road that leads to Eloi country.
LA writes: “This lesson, coming from both the period of the Revolution and from the post Revolutionary period under the Articles of Confederation, became almost instinctive for the main leaders of that time, the Federalists. And so they created a government with the ability to act, and a Constitution that would, under wise guidance, prevent that government from becoming too powerful.”
The End. Now go to sleep, children, and in the morning we will recite this again until you all have it memorized.
Under the original Constitution, the states were not subservient to the federal government. The states were sovereign entities, each of which had merely lent a share of its sovereign power to the federal government in order that it might do corporately for them those few things the states couldn’t do better for themselves individually—for instance, provide a centralized command and control structure for their mutual defense. The states did not derive their powers from the federal government. The federal government derived its power from the states, who in turn derived their powers from the citizens of the states. It wasn’t until quite a bit later, for instance, that the sole power to interpret the Constitution came to be vested in the Supreme Court. Before that particular momentous occasion, it was commonly held that the power to interpret the Constitution rested with the people and the people’s representatives *in their states*. The states had the right to decide what was constitutional and what was not, *precisely because the people didn’t want the federal government to have that power*. Another example: the Bill of Rights originally did not apply to the states. It applied only to the federal government. It was only later, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that the 14th Amendment was adopted (in an unlawful fashion) and that particular authoritarian piece was added to the consolidationist puzzle. I could go on, but the point is that the government of the Founders resembled our government today not at all, and it is misguided to try to convince yourself that we are somehow staying true to our ancestors’ vision. Our train left the track of republican orthodoxy many, many years ago, and your unwillingness to face that fact puts you in the same camp with your enemies, though you don’t apparently realize it.
You differ from the left only in what you wish to employ the enormous police powers of the federal Leviathan for. But you are just as authoritarian as they, in the sense that you (as near as I can tell) have no respect for local rule, nor for the idea of people living under laws that they themselves approve. You wish to impose your will over all fifty states and upwards of 300 million people at once, just like the left does. This was *not* the original vision. We were not intended to be two huge parties in constant collision with each other, each desperate to turn one enormous, winner-take-all ship of state an inch or two in his or her direction. This system we have today is utter madness, and yet almost everyone imagines that it has something to do with what the Founders created. Wrong. We are heirs to the *corruption* of the Constitution.
Matt, Mr. Auster, Telos, Mr. Murgos, Bubba, and any others: Can we agree that the following ideas might contribute to fixing the current appalling situation (and might be incorporated into The Second American Republic to come)?
1) The right of secession of states from the Union should be guaranteed in an untouchable way. By untouchable I mean subsumed under a category of constitutional provision that cannot be altered by any means except scrapping the entire government and constitution themselves and starting over. If states could secede the Feds never would have DARED ram Roe vs. Wade (or a ton of other stuff) down our throats, for example.
2) Never again must the power to interpret the Constitution rest in the same hands — Federal hands — which stand to aggrandize themselves every time such interpretation goes in a particular direction. Power to interpret it must instead be vested in a committee of jurists who are beholden only to the collective states (states, furthermore, which retain the full and unilateral right of secession the instant the Federal government displeases them) and in no way harboring any expectation of direct or indirect personal gain whenever Federal power is increased (indeed, set it up so that they harbor an expectation of outright personal loss).
3) Create, as alluded to above, a category of constitutional provisions which cannot be changed by any constitutional means. They are fixed and immutable. For example, there would be no capitation tax. Period. Forever. No way to change that into an oppressive Federal income tax and IRS monstrosity. Also, such a category would do away with some of the problems introduced by allowing certain categories the franchise, such as women and the propertyless. We wouldn’t have to live in fear every fifteen years or whatever it is that the Equal Rights Amendment might pass, because some principle fundamentally in opposition to the ERA would be enshrined immutably among the constitution’s provisions. So, we could allow women, let’s say, the vote without fearing that in voting they will be able to bring society as we know it crashing down about our ears
4) There are many other improvements one could imagine, including of course doing away with all the incorrect and never-intended interpretations of the XIVth Amendment. And how about this one: in order to help Senators and Representatives do the job their constituents sent them to DC for, rather than becoming members of the Federal power-élite the minute they set foot on D.C. soil, let’s no longer send them there — have a provision that they must carry out their functions from their home states and districts, and change the Senate and House into museums.
Finally: the way to get stuff like this out of the realm of fantasy may simply be to start openly proposing it, in the same spirit whereby an explicit party platform of a political party draws unto itself constituents.
America at Foundation was conceived as a political legal body, an aggregate of individual citizens, endowed with liberties and so-called “rights”, a false conception of the natural human reality. Similarly, Democracy was based on the false premise that all men are equal; but an elite will always arise. Better to have an aristocratic elite whose interests lie with the preservation of their linage and property than a capitalist elite motivated by material gain loyal only to international capital, or an ideological elite such as the liberal media.
One solution, as Matt says, is feudalism with guilds, warrior castes, church, and profession - autonomous communities independent of the state. Even closer to a natural existence were the kinship communities of the early Greeks and Romans, and especially the Germanic and Nordics, where the autonomous family was the irreducible component of society, where men and women have different ascriptive roles and the individual is seen in the 3 dimensional context of time inseparable from his kin, a society in Burke’s words of the “dead, the living and the yet unborn”.
Larger governing units should be much smaller that present states; the Greek Polis of ten to one hundred thousand was a model where members could take a direct role in their political and cultural community. States should be cultural and racial unions not in any way propositional as the Federal Union has been interpreted, notwithstanding that the Founding Fathers presumed an Anglo-majority political nation. Of course some sort of larger confederation is necessary for defence reasons,on the state level, and perhaps a weaker national linkage as well - a neccessary compromise.
While not American so without the same knowledge, stake, or business on the issue, I nevertheless fear - lacking Mr. Auster’s optimism - that the flaws in the American system are not repairable, but I’m coming to this conclusion – I think - from a conservative not a libertarian/anarchist perspective.
Bubba writes: “The End. Now go to sleep, children, and in the morning we will recite this again until you all have it memorized.”
One thing I’ve learned in editing VFR is that the more wrongheaded and ignorant people’s opinions are, the more rude and arrogant they are in expressing them. This is especially the case with paleo-libertarians. To Bubba, the idea that the Constitution created a sovereign state with the power to act as a state is a children’s fairy tale deserving of contempt. But if that were the case, why was there such a big debate over the ratification of the Constitution? Why did the anti-Federalists oppose it so strongly? Obviously because the Constitution was decisively shifting power from the states to the national government.
“The right of secession of states from the Union should be guaranteed in an untouchable way.”
Under Undorned’s proposal, will the states also guarantee in an untouchable way the at-will right of each county to secede from the state the moment the residents of that country don’t like a law passed by the state legislature? Furthermore, will each county guarantee in an untouchable way the at-will right of each munipality to secede from the county the moment it doesn’t like something the county has done? And will each municipality likewise guarantee to each borough and neighborhood the at-will right to break away and form its own munipality, without the consent of the munipality?
As Lincoln said in his statement to Congress of July 4, 1861, the principle of secession is the principle of disintegration. No organized form of government could survive on this basis. If government is necessary to human society, then principles that make the survival of government impossible are to be avoided.
I missed the last post, good points though as someone who admires the British system of convention and unwritten constitution I worry about putting anything into the constitution that cannot be changed by any method in case in future less desirable legislation is likewise fixed in law. Good idea of turning the House and Senate into a museums.
“The right of secession of states from the Union should be guaranteed in an untouchable way.”
The sort of arbitrary right to secede on a whim advocated by neoconfederates won’t work, it seems to me. A government whose subsidiary units can just arbitrarily walk away at any time is a government that can’t make commitments; and indeed a cynical view of secession is that it represents a desire to walk away from commitments. Underneath that is the notion that commitments don’t bind us because they were made by illegitmate government that doesn’t represent us, and underneath that as Dan says is the notion (contra nature) that political power derives solely from the individual and has been delegated to the state. Even assuming the simple view that the federal government only exists as something created by the states in cooperation, once they created it they are bound by what it does. We are responsible for (and bound by) what our legitimately appointed agents do, even if we don’t like or agree with what they do.
So some sort of secession process that was not arbitrary might help as an additional check-and-balance, but I am with Dan in thinking that such things are really stop-gaps. In the long run liberalism dominates unless we repent from it, and the structural stop-gaps just represent accelerations or delays in the inevitable advance of liberalism. (The same goes for explicitly devolving constitutional interpretive authority — it isn’t a bad patch but it doesn’t really repair anything).
The basic problem is not all of the structural issues. Structures are the effects of underlying philosophy and culture, not their causes (or more accurately they are an organic system, and changing the structure is useless without changing the underlying philosophy because we will ultimately end up back in the same sort of pickle). Quite literally the only way out is repentance, which in the end shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians.
Matt, thanks for pointing out that structural changes are ultimately stop-gap measures unless the underlying spiritual and moral decay is addressed. I think it was John Adams who made the remark that the government he and his colleagues established would work only for a moral people. When the very idea of right and wrong collapses, a republican form of government degenerates into what we see before us now, an oligarchy heading towards despotism.
“Under Undorned’s proposal, will the states also guarantee in an untouchable way the at-will right of each county to secede from the state the moment the residents of that country don’t like a law passed by the state legislature? Furthermore, will each county guarantee in an untouchable way the at-will right of each munipality to secede from the county the moment it doesn’t like something the county has done? And will each municipality likewise guarantee to each borough and neighborhood the at-will right to break away and form its own munipality, without the consent of the munipality?” — Lawrence Auster
Mr. Auster makes excellent points. My answer is that component parts of political entities don’t secede so easily. Within recent memory there have been binding referendums on whether or not Scotland and Wales wished to break away from the U.K., Québec from Canada, and Puerto Rico from the U.S. Separation was turned down in all cases. Majorities of people aren’t, I don’t believe, going to capriciously declare their independence every time some politician calls for that as a solution to some problem. Growing up in Queens, New York City, I remember there was always some individual or group there calling for New York City to declare its independence from New York State. Though talked about often, that idea never got very far when I lived there and I gather still hasn’t. On the other hand, secession’s availability as a last-resort option where all else has failed would powerfully dissuade central government from brazenly overstepping its bounds, I feel.
In response to Mr. Auster’s example of how unworkable it would be if, out of consistency, the right to secede were granted to every level of government down to the smallest local unit: that may be. So, I say this: let’s start with this right on only the state level first, and see — because I don’t know what else BUT the right of state secession can ever force the feds to remain within constitutional bounds.
Unadorned—The Quebec/Canada example you mention is an interesting one (well, to me at any rate). The rejection of the (deliberately vaguely worded) secession proposal was by the narrowest of margins; early returns that night actually showed the secessionists in the lead. Since then, the Canadian Supreme Court has *affirmed* the right of Quebec, and presumably any other province, to secede after some kind of vaguely specified negotiations following a positive referendum result. So for the past few years we have had a voluntary federation of provinces. This is combined, moreover, with a system of massive transfer payments, unlike anything in the U.S. so far as I am aware, extracted from the wealthier provinces such as Alberta and handed over to the poorer provinces. So a rich province has a direct financial interest in seceding, and now apparently the acknowledged right to do so. It doesn’t seem very likely that the federation will hold together very long under such conditions.
On the problem of limiting central government power (considered in the abstract): It strikes me that one way of doing this would be to explicitly limit the central government’s coercive powers to that to impose taxes, or a certain kind of tax, perhaps with some upper limit, and to spend these revenues. The central government would become a funder of public services such as a common armed forces. Otherwise, the constituent states would relate to one another much like independent nations. The central government could also perform functions assigned to it by the individual (not collective, majoritarian) consent of the constituent states or by corporations or individuals. This may be the most limited kind of central government that at the same time has the power and flexibility to meet collective needs when the occasion arises.
Apparently — it is difficult to say for sure, but I don’t know how else to interpret his post in the context of the current thread — F. Salzer believes that if the government has any actual authority at all then it basically owns us all as slaves. As Sobran/Rothbard/Salzer would have it, “the state [is] nothing but a criminal gang writ large”.
I am not fan of the modern managerial liberal state in particular, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that libertarian utopianism is what created the modern managerial state in the first place. The modern managerial state is a direct descendent of classical liberalism.
As I said, all utopianisms, including libertarian utopianisms, are ultimately nihilistic.
I not sure I fully understand your reply, Mr Auster. In a previous post you had embraced the notion of “constitutional traditionalism,” which you described as opposition to the government when it oversteps the bounds of the constitution. I responded by quoting a passage from John C Calhoun’s Disquisition On Government, wherein Calhoun argues that a constitution is an ineffective safeguard against the gradual expansion of the state. I noticed that you did not deny Calhoun’s analysis of the ineffectiveness of constitutional safeguards, and instead attacked his solution. Thus, it would seem, given the concessions you now either implicitly (not denying Calhoun’s analysis of constitutionalism) or explicitly (that the worst fears of the anti-Federalists have been realized) make, that constitutional traditionalism is an exercise in futility (the constitutional part, at least).
Telos is correct: my answer was not 100 percent foolproof. And that, I believe, is because no constitution and no human system, including Calhoun’s, can be 100 percent foolproof. Calhoun discerned a tendency in any constitutional system to aggrandize power. But must that tendency be dispositive in every case? We don’t know. Maybe with greater wisdom and a sounder culture it can be forestalled. Maybe any form of government is destined to decline over time, as Plato and Polybius said, and thus, viewed in the long run, is, in Telos’s words, an exercise in futility. But at the same time, it seems plain to me that Calhoun’s solution is unworkable. So we have a choice between a constitutional system of government that can work for perhaps a few hundred years before it congeals into a centralized bureaucracy (or maybe, with wisdom, can withstand the tendency to aggrandizement for longer than that), and an alternative theory of government that could never work at all. Maybe that’s the best that the limitations of human existence offer us.
There may be a better answer than that, but that’s the best I have at the moment.
Part of the problem is that both systems lack aristocratic transfer of political authority to progeny, a feature that tends to be rather hard on the actual members of the powerful families themselves but that nonetheless guarantees some stability. I am not aware of any civilization that lasted a millenium or longer without some form of inheritance of power-for-life. These days there is some inheritance of riches-without-responsibility, but even that has been under attack for a long time now. Someone who is very rich cannot pass his estate to his children intact, let alone a seat in the house of lords with real authority, or the throne. So it isn’t any wonder that stability has decreased.
At a minimum, I think Matt could put together an anthology of short stories that illustrate the themes he sees as important. The decisive element would be Matt’s accompanying explanations. (Mere blurbs and rhetorical questions could be relegated to the university edition.) Whatever the means, Matt has a lot to contribute.
“there will need to be some airtight, foolproof remedy for this problem” - Unadorned
There may be a need, but that does not mean that such a remedy exists. I tend to believe it does not. Just as conservatives should never fall into the leftist self-deception regarding the perfectibility of man, we should never believe in the perfectibility of a man-made system implemented and stewarded over by man. It is a false dream.
Live long enough and you’ll see everything. Here’s Joe Sobran on December 11, cautioning against the “raw vilification” of Israel. There’s still a lot to take issue with in this column, but still, it’s surprising…
Joe Sobran, Prof. Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Auster, and Prof. Paul Gottfried are consistent in their respective views regarding whether or not the nation-state is (the latter two) or isn’t (the former two) OK. Pat Buchanan, the ADL, and Prof. Dershowitz are inconsistent in this regard, endorsing the legitimacy of the nation-state in some cases but not others. The only voices that do not make me heartsick are the ones in the group Mr. Auster and Prof. Gottfried are members of.
I haven’t read the article yet, but Joseph Sobran cautioning against the raw villification of Israel is like Jesse Jackson cautioning against reckless accusations of white racism.
“the ones in the group Mr. Auster and Prof. Gottfried are members of,” i.e., the voices that approve of the legitimacy of the nation-state AND bestow their approval consistently. Joe Sobran’s column makes me heartsick to read.
I hope this isn’t being petty, but I wonder what seeming nation-state deniers like Mr. Sobran and the Pope would say if it were specifically THEIR ancestral nation-state whose very existence was mortally threatened. We’ve already seen how Prof. Chomsky would react — a member of the Jewish Community, he nevertheless demonstrates no sympathy whatsoever for Israel’s grave existential plight (and of course none for America’s, the other Community he belongs to which is under threat). So, he’s being consistent and seems unreachable as far as awakening in him any feelings of national identity or loyalty goes. As for the two others: I think Sobran wrote somewhere his father hailed from the Ukraine — so, I wonder if he and the Pope would change their tune of insouciance regarding the survival of nation-states if the Ukraine and Poland were facing the same existential crisis some other countries are now facing. (Hope I’m not offending Catholics with this little thought experiment.)
George Soros is another member of the Prof. Chomsky/Joe Sobran camp, the camp that espouses wrongness in regard to the nation-state idea and then applies that wrongness consistently. Look at this Poe’s Blog entry:
I read the Sobran article. If Paul is suggesting that it represents some turnabout on Sobran’s part, I do not agree at all. What Sobran is saying here re Israel is what he’s said all along: that he’s not anti-Israel, that he’s not an Israel hater or an anti-Semite, but that he is merely a fair and rational “critic” of Israel.
What’s worse than his treatment of Israel in this article is his total, context-free trashing of the West for its relations with non-Westerners. But notice the trick he’s playing: he’s saying that he’s not _really_ anti-Israel, since he regards America and Britain as much worse. Now, I don’t know that this is true, but it strikes me as a reasonable possibility that Sobran has turned to this total demonization of the West in order to provide a cover for his demonization of Israel. His hatred of Israel is the motivating factor for his attack on the West.
But leaving that theory aside, it remains the case that the way he writes in this article shows a thoroughy sick spirit, a man who has turned in hatred against his own country and civilization.
This is an old story. Because men are no angels, a government with a legal monopoly on the use of force is necessary to prevent men’s abuse of one another - to prevent the war of all against all. Men then turn to getting control of government, and government itself becomes the vehicle by which the war of all against all is carried on. All the ingenious machinery of our constitution, including separation of powers and checks and balances has proved ineffective in the long run to prevent this process. Now, thanks to the abysmal state of education, no one even understands what the founders were trying to do, let alone the necessity of preserving their wise arrangements. Surely the anarcho-libertarians just as much as the left are denying the reality of human evil, and the necessity of social or governmental arrangements that make due allowance for it and attempt to deflect its effects.
Thucydides has hit the nail on the head. Sobran and the other anarcho-libertarians deny the reality of human evil. It’s the state that is evil. Do away with the state, do away with armies, do away with police, and man’s natural goodness will come out.
Not to focus too much on personalities here, but can you imagine the moral and psychological destruction that had to occur in the mind of this one-time conservative for him to end up as an anarchist?
It is quite a tragedy. Sobran in his prime was a brilliant conservative writer and defender of constitutional government.
“It is quite a tragedy. Sobran in his prime was a brilliant conservative writer and defender of constitutional government.”
And now, along with his late mentor Murray Rothbard, he’s against the Constitution, because he’s against the state.
And when we remember that he blames his decline on the Jews and the friends of the Jews, we can imagine the world of resentment in which he resides. With him, everything always comes back to the Jews, whom he calls the Zionists. At the time this article was originally posted, last March, Sobran and I had an e-mail exchange about it. He said my characterization of him as a nihilist (a term I carefully define in the article and give a variety of examples of) was just a cover for my real beef with him, which was his anti-Zionism.
“In fact, allow me to register my own suspicion that you discovered my ‘nihilism’ because I offended your own buried obsession [about Israel]. As Dr Johnson says, ‘A man who is angry on one ground will attack upon another.’ This has happened to me a number of times—Zionists, with inexplicable zeal, trying to discredit me for something that seems to have nothing to do with Israel. Most recently I’ve wondered if Horowitz would really care all that much about my views on Lincoln if I hadn’t popped off on Israel. Just a hunch, mind you, but it would fit the pattern I’m so familiar with by now.”
I tried to explain to him that the nihilism charge stood on its own, and had to do with his anarcho-libertarianism which would deny the legitimacy of any existing state, as I argued in the article. I told him that I certainly didn’t like his views on Israel, but I also didn’t like his anarcho-libertarianism. None of this made any impression on him. He was sure I was only writing this article about him because of his anti-Zionism, that my whole thesis about nihilism was simply a front.
At some point I might publish this whole correspondence.
I agree that Sobran isn’t doing a “turnabout”; it’s just that his anti-Israel stance has been so consistent and so florid that I was surprised to see him conceding that it’s possible to go too far in this line; it indeed sounds a little like Jesse Jackson cautioning against reckless accusations of white racism. But I don’t agree that Sobran denies “the reality of human evil”; he explicitly invokes the doctrine of original sin and I see no reason to suspect his sincerity in doing so. Wouldn’t many anarcho-libertarians (I don’t know, I’m not of their party) argue that it’s precisely the inevitability of human evil that requires us to limit state power to the absolute minimum?
Oh, there’s no question that Sobran would deny that he’s denying the reality of human evil and would reference his belief in original sin to prove it. But as Matt says, what counts is not what people say their intention is, what matters is the overall drift of their thought, the larger forces and principles that it supports or opposes. Sobran sees the state with its monopoly on force as inherently evil, and (though this is so obviously an impossibility that it’s not worth discussing) would apparently like to do away with it. He doesn’t think the state is needed to suppress men’s coercive use of force against each other; therefore he must believe that people left to their own will not use coercive force against each other; therefore he doesn’t believe in the reality of human evil. QED.
If people won’t be bound by constitutional limitations, why will they be bound to respect property rights in the anarcho-utopia? The extreme libertarianism of some paleocons turns them into a parody of the neocons who think that everything would be fine if only marginal tax rates were set properly. In any case, as Mr. Auster notes, the opportunity to reject the Constitution and stick with the Articles has passed some time ago and is rather unlikely to return. Q: How many paleocons does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Well, Thomas Edison didn’t really invent the lightbulb, you know.
Excellent point by Agricola. Sobran rejects the Constitution, because the Constitution was not a strong enough safeguard against statism. In other words, the human desire for power is too strong for the Constitution to stop it. Yet Sobran assumes that in the absence of any state with its monopoly on the use of force, the human desire for power will be naturally restrained!