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Reclaiming Constitutional Thinking: William Selinger’s Parliamentarism

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There have only been five presidential elections in the history of the United States in which the winner of the electoral college did not win the popular vote. Two of the five, the only ones which did not occur in the 19th century, were the most recent Republican presidents; one, George W. Bush, under infamously contentious conditions, and the other, our current president, who received some 4.3 million fewer total votes than his opponent. As a result, the electoral college has entered the ranks of topics on which party affiliation predictions position, with Democrats favoring its abolition and the Republicans defending its provenance.

We Americans would do well to get a little perspective from history and from outside our own context. William Selinger’s fascinating book, Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber is a great place to start. It is a book which makes it difficult to take seriously those “traditionalists” who cite Edmund Burke or speak of political artifacts such as the electoral college as though they are sacrosanct. The salient facts of the English constitution in Burke’s day were quite recent developments and still in play. He was an important player himself, both through his decades-long career in the House of Commons, and as a titan of parliamentary theory who would set the terms of debate for a generation. Here in America, the founding fathers were very much kindred spirits. Their institutional experimentation was far more radical, but it did not begin or end with the document signed in 1789. To act as though honoring these figures requires freezing the institutions they left us in place is ignorant at best. Were they alive today, they might not want to abolish the electoral college, but they would without a doubt be monkeying around with our institutions.

Which is not to say that the best course is simply to abolish the electoral college and leave it at that. The final chapter of Selinger’s book discusses how the parliamentary theorists were swept aside by the tide of mass democracy at the turn of the 20th century. The democratic theorists that replaced them are big on thought experiments and thinking through the moral grounding of true democracy, but not big on institutional or procedural details. 

Say we did abolish the electoral college, what then? We would still have a powerful executive with a wide popular base (indeed, even more so in this scenario). Is that truly where we ought to leave things? John Stuart Mill and the other Victorian parliamentarians saw that the problem with America’s Presidency was not in the electoral college system but in the weakness of Congress, when compared to the supremacy of the House of Commons. Mill’s commentary is more relevant today than ever:

[T]here ought not to be any possibility of that deadlock in politics, which would ensure on a quarrel breaking out between a president and an assembly, neither of whom, during an interval which might amount to years, would have any legal means of ridding itself of the other.

The English constitution avoided this by making the King’s ministers accountable to the House of Commons, and by giving the executive the power to call new elections. Mill emphasized this as well, but the theorist who first made it central to parliamentarism was Germaine de Staël, center of the Coppet Circle of intellectuals in Switzerland during the French Revolution. Looming large in the mind of theorists of this period was the failure of France’s Constitution of 1791, which fell apart after repeated use of the royal veto led to an outbreak of violence and, ultimately, the Reign of Terror. De Staël suggested an institutional arrangement in which the executive (a committee rather than a monarch in this case) was constitutionally subordinate to the legislature, but had the ability to call a new election—a tactic that would only work if popular opinion favored them over the current legislators.

De Staël argued not only that the executive committee’s ministers should resign when opposed by the legislature but that in such a circumstance, the committee itself should resign as well. This would ensure that “there never arrives something which cannot reasonably exist: a supreme authority executing a decision it reproves.” The executive’s other option was to dissolve the legislature and call an election. “In a free government,” according to de Staël, “public opinion in all its force can alone force one of the powers to cede to the other, if by misfortune they differ.” By dissolving the legislature, the executive committee was gambling that public opinion was on their side. If a legislature friendlier to their position was elected, they could stay in office—but should the electorate return a legislature still at odds with them, they would have no choice but to resign.

Like the other parliamentarians examined in the book, de Staël thinks carefully about how to offer each side a mechanism, with teeth, that nevertheless won’t threaten to throw the entire enterprise off balance. In this case, the executive is subordinated, but can fight back largely by holding parliament accountable to public opinion. For other thinkers, such as Benjamin Constant, a monarch who “rules but does not govern” subverts unhealthy status competitions by occupying a position at the top which no one else can reach, channeling ambition into the healthier competition for ministry positions. In each case, the thinker carefully mapped out the faultlines of the system as a whole and sought to address each in ways that did not put pressure on the others.

In our own country, we are afforded only rare opportunities to amend our written Constitution. Should we liberals find ourselves with such an opportunity and choose to abolish the electoral college, thinking it will change much of substance, it would be a tremendous waste and certain disappointment. We could do worse than turning to Selinger’s book to observe, without the baggage of our own history, numerous examples of how to think seriously about a political system as a whole, and how best to improve it.

Featured image is The Trial of Warren Hastings, 1788

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2019: The year revolt went global


Revolt as Consumer Backlash

Beyond Washington DC, Donald Trump, and impeachment, there lies a great big world – and that world, at the moment, is being convulsed by a remarkable number of revolts against political authority.  I will let Tyler Cowen, who is an economist, do the counting:

As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.

That we hardly talk about the collapse of order within so many nations is a tribute to the unconquerable provincialism of our thinking classes.

So what are we to make of this mess?  Why the frenzy of protests – and why now?

A reasonable explanation is randomness.  What could Hong Kong’s protests against an extradition law have to do with an independence movement in Catalonia – or with anger at mass transit fare increases in Chile?  Only coincidence in time.  Cowen touches on this possibility, only to gently push it aside.  For good reason:  once you make randomness the cause, there’s nothing more to say.  Still, I believe randomness has a place in this story.  There are times when the odds suddenly play us false.  The Soviet Union was our eternal enemy, and then, in Marx’s phrase, it melted into air.  Hosni Mubarak was the immoveable pharaoh of Egypt, and then, in three weeks, he was gone.  Donald Trump was unelectable, until he won.  A nation is an exceedingly complex system, and at the heart of every complex system, propelling it toward each possible destination, is the sociopolitical equivalent of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

As his daunting list indicates, Cowen is among the few who have paid attention to the big picture, and his economist’s perspective on events is intriguing.  Many of the protests, he observes, began with price or tax increases.  Consumers, mustered online, may be the twenty-first century’s subversive class, much as factory workers were for the nineteenth.  That would account for the protesters’ almost universal lack of interest in power or revolution, programs or ideologies – the traditional objectives of politics.  A consumer revolt has no need for such baggage.  In fact, as Cowen remarks, a political blank slate can be an advantage in rallying huge numbers against a specific grievance.

I agree with Cowen that the public has erupted into politics with the mindset of the digital consumer.  The “producers” are the elites who inhabit the government, above all, but also the parties, advocacy groups, the media – they manufacture laws, programs, decisions like impeachment.  The public stands aside, as it would from any production and marketing process, but it retains the ultimate consumer’s veto.  It can say No.  All its implacable fury is invested in that act of negation.

But we should take care not to mistake trigger mechanisms for a sufficient cause.  The crunch between the public and authority today is tectonic:  the slightest pressure can release vast destructive energies.  In Chile, for example, a 4 percent hike in mass transit fares ignited protests that have led to 23 deaths, property losses approaching a billion dollars, and a constitutional crisis.  That’s disproportionate on any accounting.  Clearly, anger and alienation preceded the fare increases.  “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years,” is how Chileans explain it.  Similarly, in Bolivia, it’s been about 14 years of Evo Morales.  In Catalonia and Hong Kong, it’s been about decades of perceived abuses by a remote central government.

Everywhere, the mobilizing force has been the wish to strike at the established order.


Revolt as Viral Message

Politics in the digital age revolve around information.  A safe assumption when thinking about this environment is that everyone is aware of everything, globally.  This sets up powerful demonstration effects:  protesters in one nation can learn from those in another.  One reason for the spread of anti-establishment revolts may well be their improved capacity to evade suppression.

The epic uprising in Hong Kong, conducted under the eyes of the world, has proved to be a sort of Cavendish Laboratory of revolt.  Activists in that city have devised ingenious tactics to narrow the disproportion between public and power:  coordination by way of encrypted applications like Telegram, for example, or summoning flash mobs that disrupt airports or shopping districts then melt away before the police can arrive in force.  The effect has been a running morality play, performed on YouTube and social media no less than television news, in which the forces of change constantly outmaneuver and outsmart the lumbering Goliath that is the state.  Imitation was inevitable and, in fact, has been widespread.  The first move in the current round of Catalan protests was a message on Telegram urging users to swarm into Barcelona’s airport.  Chile’s anti-government crowds, like their Hong Kong counterparts, have wielded laser sticks to dazzle the cops and bring down surveillance drones.  Such examples can be multiplied at will.

Hong Kong has been experienced by the global public as incentive and inspiration for taking to the streets – but also as a lesson in the unsuspected resilience of revolt.  The triumph of opposition candidates in the city’s recent elections has only reinforced this lesson.

Hong Kong

Turmoil in one country is also transmitted, like a contagion, to others that share cultural or geographic affinities.  The Sudanese and Algerian protesters who toppled two octogenarian dictators “borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans.”  The massive October demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon that led to the resignation of their respective governments were propelled by almost identical grievances.  In Latin America, long-running insurgencies in Venezuela and Nicaragua provided a model for those in Chile and Bolivia – and the latter directly inspired Colombia’s unrest in late November.

The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure.  After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale.  Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation.  From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty.  We should expect to be surprised.

What appears to be new about the present cycle is the scope and pace of change.  The revolt of the public has begun to circle the earth at warp speed, beyond the reach of analysis that conceives of it as an accumulation of national flashpoints.  Demonstration effects, Hong Kong ingenuity, cultural contagion – these account for bits and pieces of the riddle, but seem insufficient to explain the whole.  Something global and systemic looks to be at work.

I can think of two hypotheses that explain the matter from a global perspective.

The optimistic version is that revolt has, quite literally, gone viral.  The process is well known, if imperfectly understood.  The information sphere consists of billions of competing messages.  Most are forms of entertainment, sports, and pornography, or trivial subjects like cute cats and comical babies, but political content is not unknown, and can include, say, a lesson in the glamor of defiance, or a video about an African warlord.  If a message possesses qualities desired or needed by a network, that message has the potential to flood the entire network.  A number of semi-magical accidents must first occur – but let’s skip the technicalities.  All we need to remember is that we’re back in the company of our old friend, randomness.

The message of revolt of 2019, mediated by random factors, evidently has met a profound need of the network.  In more concrete terms:  when the whole world is watching, a local demand for political change can start to go global in an instant.  At a certain point, the process becomes self-sustaining and self-reinforcing:  that threshold may have been crossed in November, when at least eight significant street uprisings were rumbling along concurrently (Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon – with France, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, and Venezuela simmering in the background).  Whether local circumstances are democratic or dictatorial, prosperous or impoverished, the fashion for revolt is felt to be almost mandatory.  The public is now competing with itself in the rush to say No.

A true viral run will continue until the network is distracted by a new message or every possible node has been infected.  Prophecy is a fool’s game – but I will freely speculate that we are not there yet.

That, I repeat, is the optimistic interpretation.  Those of you with a taste for pessimism are invited to read on, as I weigh the consequences of revolt.


Revolt as Failure Cascade

Any attempt to sort out the consequences of the 2019 upheavals will soon bump into the inadequacy of our thinking on the subject.  Consequences must refer to initial conditions:  and these varied wildly.  Algeria was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship.  France, on the other hand, is one of the oldest democracies in the world.  In the last two decades, the sectarian cliques that run Lebanon have destroyed a once-thriving economy, increased poverty, and blighted the infrastructure.  In the “30 years” that sparked the Chileans’ indignation, however, their country became the wealthiest in Latin America, with the lowest poverty rate.  Levels of acceptable violence also diverged broadly:  the death of a single bystander shocked Hong Kong, but hundreds have been killed in Iraq.  Given such an untidy tangle of starting-points, it may be futile to search for common landing-places.

In the event, there have been consequences.  Two dictators of long standing are gone.  A would-be strongman has fled to exile.  At least three putatively elected governments have resigned.  Others totter, helpless, on the brink.  The cost in blood and treasure has been terrible, but there can be no question that a political earthquake has shaken the world in 2019.  The puzzle is, to what end?

Beyond the oppositional stance, the public in revolt has displayed a singular lack of clarity about its objectives.  Indifference to ideology and programs may be part of its consumerist charm.  Pure negation – a loathing of the system and the elites who fatten on it – has taken the place of political doctrine.  Ordinary people have faced bullets and beatings for that cheerless cause.  The ideals of democracy are often invoked, but these are wielded like a club to smash at the temples of authority.  France and Chile are well-functioning democracies with little corruption, yet the protests there have been notable for their violence and vandalism.  While few are calling for revolution and absolutely no one is proposing alternatives to representative government, the public’s alienation clearly runs deeper than mere hostility to the elites.  There is, I believe, a powerful if inchoate craving for structural change.

This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis.  It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system:  the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration.  Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality.  A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart.  This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.

For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious.  A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”:  a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character.  In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict.  I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn.  But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian.  The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”


Not every outcome is condemned to drown in pessimistic tears:  the process, recall, is unpredictable.  A structural reform that brings the public into closer alignment with the elites is perfectly possible.  But I find it hard to see how that can be accomplished, so long as the public clings to the mutism of the consumer and refuses to articulate its demands like a true political actor.  One rarely gets what one hasn’t asked for.  Reform depends on the public’s willingness to abandon negation for practical politics.

If this willingness has been expressed in any of the revolts now under way, I have been unable to discover it.  Meanwhile, for all the toil and trouble, little fundamental change has transpired:  governments have fallen, dictators have fled, but the old structures of power are everywhere in place.  The military are still in charge of Sudan.  Corrupt sectarians still run the show in Iraq and Lebanon.  Bolivia remains divided and on the verge of civil conflict.  Spain rules Catalonia.  China controls Hong Kong.  Brutal sacrifices have been offered on the altar of negation – many have died, and economies have been wrecked.  The gains, so far, have been largely symbolic and psychological.

The overwhelming success of anti-government candidates in Hong Kong’s municipal elections stands as the model of symbolic victory.  From one perspective, the elections were an astonishing event – a “democratic tsunami,” the protesters exulted, repeating a phrase first coined in Catalonia. Repercussions may, in time, extend into China itself.  Yet the reality on the ground hasn’t changed in the least.  China holds Hong Kong in an iron grip.  The hard authoritarians of the regime, motivated chiefly by survival instinct, could never allow democracy near power.  The protesters, for their part, are caught up in the romance of revolt and the existential joy of bashing at a system they deeply hate.  Their “Four Demands” are a polite request that the Hong Kong government abolish itself.  That is not going to happen.  The street insurgents mostly grasp this, and oppose to the futility of their struggle a tragic understanding of their situation.  “[W]e cannot give up, because if we do, there will be no future for us anyway,” one of them said.  “We might as well go down fighting,”

In Hong Kong and elsewhere, revolt has become a necessity, regardless of consequences.  The global crisis of authority seems to be hurtling towards a point of no return:  when submission to government is perceived as self-destruction, a fatal logic will ordain the destruction of government.

That’s consistent with the claims of both hypotheses outlined above.  The public, too, may be riding powerful structural forces, as it assaults the settled order of the world.

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Secular Democracy: A Medieval Idea

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Within the Manuscripts Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles resides one of the masterpieces of the medieval age of illumination: the vaunted Stammheim Missal. Dating to the late 12th century, the Missal figures importantly in the Getty’s manuscript reliquary as a testament to the workmanship, artistry, and scholarly tenacity that marks an era otherwise unfairly known as the “Middle Ages”—an epoch of relative darkness situated between the dual sunbeams of Classical and Renaissance enlightenment. However, one particular leaf of the Missal conveys, at least symbolically, a sense of the formative—indeed transformative—nature of this dynamic time in European history. The Creation of the World, as it is known to us, features a stunning motif: the visage of the risen Christ overawing a vividly colored roundel depicting the six days of creation as told in the Book of Genesis. It remains a powerful emblem of a time known for its piety and dogmatism.

Indeed, a new world was being created in the Middle Ages. But it was a world in which the risen Christ Himself would face the earliest challenges to His suzerainty over European political life. Buried within the deferential religiosity of the medieval world can be found the first kernels of a radical new concept: secular governance. It is well known that the Late Middle Ages, well after the Stammheim Missal’s time, was fraught with theological insurgency. It was the era of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, the “heretical” forerunners of anticlericalism and Reformation theology. But secular postulation was an altogether different beast. Indeed, secularism’s unlikely medieval provenance accentuates an era of decisive intellectual animation and avant-garde political theorization, characterizations we today do not typically associate with the Age of Faith. In truth, it was a time ahead of its time, a realm out of its own element.

The chief prophet of this subversive conception of the political good may be one of the most significant thinkers most people of today’s world have never heard of: Marsilius of Padua. Born in Padua sometime in the early 1270s, Marsilio dei Mainardini remains to us a relatively ephemeral figure for one whose political scribblings can be said to have established a nascent bedrock for modern Western secularism. His early schooling was at the University of Padua where he may have studied medicine. In 1313 he would become rector of the University of Paris, at the time Europe’s most prestigious institution for the study of philosophy and theology. Like so many medieval and Renaissance scholars of great minds and greater egos, he would Latinize his name to lend it the Classical gravity of a Cicero or a Seneca. Since his biography thus far is sparse, we have a limited ability to penetrate Marsilius’ psyche so as to understand why just over a decade later he elected to raise his quill against that most sacrosanct of institutions, the Latin Church.

Defensor pacis and the secular state

On June 24, 1324, Marsilius completed his only great work, Defensor pacis (The Defender of Peace). The background of this tract, like its author’s, is murky. Indeed, there are scholars who doubt that Marsilius alone wrote all of it. However, what cannot be denied is its radical remonstrance of the authority of the Holy See, the one establishment that bound an otherwise fractious medieval Western Europe into something resembling a corporate whole, a “Christendom.”

Written in the throes of a dispute between Pope John XXII and Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor, Defensor pacis asserts a defense of the prerogatives of the latter against those of the former. Louis’ path to power was a difficult one. After a series of disputed elections to fill the vacant Holy Roman throne, civil war erupted between Louis and the Duke of Austria and Styria Frederick the Fair, the Habsburg claimant. Louis’ final victory in 1322 did not settle the matter, however. The pope brazenly refused to ratify his election as emperor and excommunicated him in 1324. The stage was set for yet another conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, a recurring motif of medieval politics. Herein lay the peace that intrafaith quarrels broke, the peace which Marsilius sought to “defend.”

Against this contentious backdrop Marsilius penned his provocative thesis. Structured as two long discourses and a much shorter third, Defensor pacis challenged the concept of Plenitudo potestatis (the plentitude of power), an assertion of papal absolutism in matters both spiritual and temporal that had been wielded by pontiffs in various forms since perhaps as early as the 5th century. In a 1302 bull (a papal decree) entitled Unam sanctam, the pope illustrated this dual power through the allegory of two swords, the spiritual and temporal. “Both swords,” said the bull, “are in the power of the Church.” Secular rulers wielded the latter only by the “will and sufferance of the priest [read as bishop or pope].” This secular power was thus leased but never truly owned.

Marsilius begged to differ. The Church, he argued, possessed no such temporal sword. His logic dictated that the efficient causes of the worldly state “are the mind and wills of men through their thoughts and desires, individually and collectively.” Humankind as a whole, in Marsilius’ conception, received a mandate to contrive its own politics from its maker, not from a papal ordinance or clerical concession. Though not to be confused with the expression of “divine right” utilized later by 17th century monarchs, the gravity of this statement must be appreciated.

Strangely enough, it was from scripture and the early Church Fathers that Marsilius derived this motion of clerical impotence in the secular realm. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy admonishes the “soldier of God [who] entangleth himself with secular affairs,” a notion reinforced by Saint Ambrose of Milan and Saint Augustine of Hippo, the theological titans of the late 4th and early 5th centuries. In the Latin Church’s most cherished personalities Marsilius found some of his strongest, if most unlikely, allies.

From Gregory the Great to Bernard of Clairvaux, Marsilius’ Second Discourse sought out defectors within the Church’s intellectual past to aid in his cause. At the heart of his Bernardine discussion in particular was a notion key to the Marsilian conception of secularism: secular supremacy over the church.

Here, Marsilius remarks that Bernard appended an epistle to the Bishop of Sens with a crucial disclaimer to all ecclesiastical claims to worldly jurisdiction: “For Christ avowed that even over himself the power of the Roman ruler had been ordained by heaven.” Indeed, ecclesiastical authority does not even constitute true jurisdictional prerogative and claims to such are, Marsilius shamelessly asserts, antithetical to the laws of God. There is only one state in a realm and that is the state. Here could be found no “separation of church and state” with which Marsilianism should not be confused. Rather, it was the dominance of the latter over the former that Marsilius sought.  

The authority the medieval Church claimed ownership of lacked a scriptural abutment, according to Defensor pacis, and had no coercive ability to enforce in any regard. Indeed, it could not enforce its own divine law even if it was of a right to as Marsilius went on to make clear:

[an ecclesiastical authority] neither should nor can compel anyone to such observance in this world by any pain or punishment in property or person; for we do not read that such power to coerce and govern anyone in this world was given to him by the evangelic Scripture, but rather that it was forbidden by counsel or command, as is clear from the present chapter and the preceding one. For such power in this world given by the human laws or legislators; and even if it were given to the bishop or priest to coerce men in those matters which relate to divine law, it would be useless. 

But who were these “legislators” and to whom did they answer? It is time to turn to the most surprising aspect of Defensor pacis regarding how Marsilius legitimized his new world order unmoored from the dictates of the Church.

Marsilian democracy

 It must be quickly noted that Marsilius’ politics were explicitly not agnostic but anticlerical. Indeed, as we have seen, God played a central role in his arrangement of power and jurisdiction. His was still a world in which legitimation by the divine was paramount to ordering politics justly. But Marsilius added another layer to this process of legitimation: popular sovereignty. The legitimate state was detached from the dominion of churchmen and instead predicated on the will of the collective. In this, Marsilian politics planted the seeds of democratic politics or at least democratic theory.

To complicate matters, however, Marsilius himself explicitly denies the democratic nature of his thought at the onset of Defensor pacis. We must understand that in Marsilius’ day “democracy” was an unflattering, almost pejorative designation for almost any form of mass politics and so serious thinkers avoided it. Aristotle’s titanic presence in the scholastic world of late medieval Europe had much to do with this. His characterization of Athenian democracy, the benchmark of democratic governance at the time, was less than glowing. Marsilius therefore devised a distinctly Aristotelian tactic to outmaneuver this semantic hurdle. 

In his First Discourse, Marsilius designates his brand of political ordering a “polity” wherein “every citizen participates in some way in the government or in the deliberative function in turn according to his rank and ability or condition, for the common benefit and with the will or consent of the citizens.” This he contrasts from “democracy” under which the vulgar masses legislate selfishly and sometimes without the consent of all of the governed. Here, Defensor pacis borrows from Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics in which a “polity” is said to constitute a marriage of oligarchic and democratic elements, though Marsilius seems to strongly prefer the latter. By doing this, Marsilius clearly meant to draw a distinction between his politics and those of the open air ekklesia of Classical Athens. Since Marsilius’ time, our definition of democracy has thankfully broadened and matured, allowing us to identify the strong strains of modern democratic thought in Defensor Pacis.

Marsilius’ embrace of a democratic idea of governance, however fluid, marked a bold departure from the Aristotelian consensus of the scholastics whose intellectual forbearer, Thomas Aquinas, was made famous at Marsilius’ own University of Paris some six decades before. Indeed, the medieval tumults incurred by ecclesiastical intervention in secular affairs were a “cause of strife” which “Aristotle could not have known.” The infamously antidemocratic Aristotle was thus blind to a problem for which democracy provided a solution. A divinely ordained church would—and should—be supplanted by a divinely ordained “legislator,” a human actor working for the civic good.

This concept of the legislator humanus, the human legislator, was developed, along decisively voluntarist lines. Though the divine will sanctions civic life, it is the human will which shapes it. This legislator is thus granted by God the prerogative to order his or her own world. But is the legislator an individual? A body? An institution? Marsilius does not bother with the details as such. He is ever the theoretician. He does, however, make clear that the legislator is a collective, defined in this well-known passage as:

…the people or the whole body of citizens or the weightier part thereof through its election or will expressed by words in the general assembly of the citizens, commanding or determining that something be done or omitted with regard to human civil acts…whether it makes the law directly by itself or entrusts the making of it to some person or persons.

How this necessarily contrasts from his earlier unfavorable characterization of “democracy” is not quite clear. To us, it likely wouldn’t to any significant degree. For Marsilius, popular sovereignty rules the day. This is a boon that the Church cannot obtain. Its Pope rules without scriptural prerogative over a world he cannot control. Its bishops prevail over their metropolitan sees absent the consent of the legislators therein. Marsilius’ secularism was thus inextricably bound to his democracy, his “polity.” The 14th century would never forgive him.

The creation of the world

Marsilius of Padua died around 1342. The Latin Church knew immediately that he was more than a troublesome canon with a busy pen. He was driven from his native Italy and entered the service of the imperial court of Louis IV where he spent the balance of his career forcibly bringing the Bavarian clergy into line. He seems to have practiced what he preached.

The world he helped create would be drastically different from the one that spawned the Stammheim Missal. Deference to an ecclesiastical order said to have descended from Saint Peter would one day cease to be universal. His writings would even be used to forward the Henrician Reformation in the 16th century. But Marsilius’ afterlife is not bound solely to the pages of his tract. Our civic spaces today bear a Marsilian likeness and an understanding of the proper nature of the state that was conceived in a 14th century mind.

Featured image the title page of the German partial translation of the Defensor pacis printed at Neuburg

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Re-examining the Homestead Act, a Favorite But Flawed National Myth

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The mythology, rather than the history, of homesteading, looms large in the American imagination. Included in this mythology is the idea of ‘valueless’ land made valuable in the process of homesteading, and the supposed egalitarian nature of land distribution; this is supposed by many Americans both to have made the United States an inherently middle class country, free of the class distinctions present in Europe, and to have provided the space necessary for an open immigration policy. These ideas work together to form one cohesive narrative: after the Homestead Act of 1862, valueless land was made available to all, on equal terms and largely after slavery had been extinguished, and so the hardest working or most adventurous individuals took advantage of the opportunity and thus gained an ethical right to the land, which they passed down to their children. Ayn Rand, whose novels are persistent best sellers in the United States and whose thought has been cited as influential by numerous politicians, expressed the common perception of the Homestead Act thus:

 The citizens did not have to pay the government as if it were an owner; ownership began with them, and they earned it by the method which is the source and root of the concept of “property”: by working on unused material resources, by turning a wilderness into a civilized settlement. Thus, the government, in this case, was acting not as the owner but as the custodian of ownerless resources who defines objectively impartial rules by which potential owners may acquire them.

This is generally the view endorsed by right-leaning libertarians to justify the relative lack of a social safety net in the United States compared to other industrialized countries. If the initial land in the United States was distributed on an equitable basis, then the creation of subsequent wealth must be due either to hard work and intelligence or simple luck, since initially all had equal access to the foundations of wealth. Or so the argument goes.

It is true that land occupation and ownership progressed very differently in the United States than in other countries. However, the myths simply do not hold up in historical fact.  ‘Homesteading’ was not the neutral addition of value to an untouched landscape it is claimed to be, and the Homestead Act did not avert the problems related to land ownership experienced by every settled country, though it may have dulled them.  Exposing these weaknesses and exploding this American myth, especially as it pertains to western states, is important for shifting Americans to a more realistic mindset about racial inequality and corporate power in the country. 

The common perception of North American land before the ‘settlement’ was that it was both ownerless and valueless.  Indeed, for the ethics of homesteading to make sense, it is important to assume that land is valueless before labor is expended upon it; arch-libertarain Murray Rothbard’s assertion that “before the homesteader, no one really used and controlled, and hence owned the land. The pioneer, or homesteader, is the man who first brings the valueless unused natural objects into production and use“ is vital. After all, if land is seen as a resource of immense value before any human has laid hands on it, or if the value of land is seen as greater than that of the improvements upon it, it seems difficult to argue that a relatively superficial transformation thereof—the clearing of trees or building a fence, which constituted the greatest ‘improvements’ taken by homesteaders—entitles one to perpetual ownership of the land below it. In the case of a hypothetical, truly empty area of land, this might make some sense—but that was by no means the case in the United States during the settlement period.

By any measure, the land in the west was incredibly valuable to many frequently competing parties.  First, it was the basis of survival for many hundreds of thousands of people.  While the exact population of Native Americans supported by the land is impossible to calculate, and dropped significantly over time, the fact that so many people made their living on the land would seem to impute it with value.  Indeed, Rothbard himself argues that if, after a shipwreck, two men reach for a plank of wood to save themselves,

… our homestead principle of property right comes into play: i.e., the first person who reaches the plank “owns” it for the occasion, and the second person throwing him off is at the very least a violator of the former’s property and perhaps also liable for prosecution for an act of murder

Though it was not his intention, this analogy clearly vindicates the right of the already present peoples to keep the land which was keeping them alive.  The land on which they lived clearly had immense value to them, and it is difficult to reconcile the principle of homesteading with the idea of thrusting them off of the property they live on, under the justification that the white man could make ‘better’ use of it. The lives lost in defending the right to use ‘valueless’ land testify to its value. The lives lost due to starvation and deprivation when they were pushed off the land also gives the lie to Rothbard’s claim that “In fact, there is no way of measuring or knowing when [the people desiring access to land] are worse off or not.”

It is quite obvious that the indigenous Americans were much worse off as a result of the ‘settlement’ of the US, which robbed from them their most valuable asset.  Indeed, the land was so valuable that in most cases where some manner of exchange was made for it, the Native people did not agree to a fee simple price, but rather to a recurring payment of food, tools, or some other good—a payment made not by individual homesteaders, but by the government.  That critical role of government action will be more salient later in the discussion. 

It is also obvious that the land was financially valuable to white society well before it was ‘settled’. While it is difficult to account for the financial value of the land to Native Americans, who were largely outside the market revolution occurring in the 19th century United States, it is easy to see the financial value to others who used it.  Numerous commercial enterprises emerged for the gathering of furs, timber, and other resources from the land west of the Mississippi.  Indeed, the first nominal millionaire in the United States (whose fortune is difficult to even translate into modern dollars), John Jacob Astor, made his fortune from the fur trade in the pre-homestead United States. After the Civil War, millions of cattle were raised in the unfenced west, based again on a legal right to use unleased land for the purpose of grazing. The ability of those individuals to use the land, which they (like the Native Americans before them) saw a natural right, had to be circumscribed to make room for the homesteaders, and it was not uncommon for them as well to violently resist.  Finally, when given the opportunity, speculators were willing to invest vast sums into purchasing land that had not yet been put to any use (by white men). Henry George describes (from his first hand experience) how speculative value was place on unworked resources, and the lengths men would go to realize that value for themselves:

That mineral land, when reduced to private ownership, is frequently withheld from use while poorer deposits are worked, is well known, and in new States it is common to find individuals who are called “land poor”—that is, who remain poor, sometimes almost to deprivation, because they insist on holding land, which they themselves cannot use, at prices at which no one else can profitably use it.

Clearly to many people, the land was worth a great deal, by any measure, practical or financial. To the Native Americans, it was a resource of incalculable value, as it was critical to their survival (as the large numbers who died of starvation on reservations makes clear).  To pre-homesteading white users, it was useful for generating millions of dollars in revenue and providing both luxuries and necessities for the Eastern United States.  And the fact that speculators would pay to hold the land idle indicates that in fact the land was considered more valuable without ‘improvements’ than with them. The idea, then, that the homesteaders were the first to make something of ‘valueless’ land is absurd when subjected to even rudimentary scrutiny. Of course, the United States government, and many philosophers before and since, did not consider these activities sufficient for staking a claim to land, but that is immaterial in determining its actual value or the ethics of divvying it up via homesteading.  If the justification for homesteading in theory is that the unimproved land is valueless, then homesteading in the western United States cannot be justified. 

This understanding changes the picture of ‘early’ settlers quite a bit.  Rather than a valueless lump of potential, waiting for homesteaders to act on it, the ‘unsettled’ west instead appears as a veritable treasure chest, full of land whose value was well known. The United States government expended millions of dollars and plenty of blood in violently pacifying the other potential claimants to the land, and paying off those it could not defeat outright, in order to gain control of this valuable land and assert the right to distribute it. Rather than the Lockean utopian of homesteading myth, the reality is much closer to European feudalism or the Spanish hacienda system, with the government choosing who would benefit from the land windfall according to criteria beneficial to itself.

The picture that emerges is of a conquering power proactively populating its valuable, recently seized territory. Indeed, given the continued indigenous resistance to the US government throughout the 19th century, the post-Civil War settlement perhaps most resembles the Tsar’s use of Cossack hosts to populate marginal or disputed areas with settlers whose loyalty would be rewarded with the newly conquered land. Viewed through this lens, the settlement policy of the US was both a way to reward loyal supporters of the government (especially, after the Civil War, the Republican party) and to bring the area more firmly under the control of that government.  This, much better than any Romanticized story of rugged individuals creating value where there had been none, explains the both the egalitarian and hierarchical aspects of the land distribution that followed. 

To be sure, there were somewhat egalitarian aspects of the distribution of Western land, especially the much-lauded Homestead Act of 1862.  Under this act, nearly four million families receive something like 270 million acres of land for very low rates.  Unsurprisingly, these were precisely the sort of people who brought the Republican party to victory in 1860—the small farmers, attracted to the promise of free land and frightened at the prospect of it being carved into slave worked plantations, who formed the core of the Free Soil party and opened the way to Republican victories in states like Illinois and Indiana that had previously voted for Democrats. These numbers, in turn, would help the government reliably hold onto areas recently subject to violent conflict between the US government and Native Americans (and Mormon settlers previously established in the Rocky Mountains). Moreover, the most heavily homesteaded states were more likely to remain loyal to the Republican party, with Democrats not making real inroads in the Great Plains or Northern Rockies until William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

The terms of the Homestead Act made this almost inevitable. First, applicants were required to affirm that they had “never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies”; this ensured that at least the first wave of settlers would be Unionists, and gave such men a leg up on former Confederates who in many cases were seeking the same land.  Moreover, the land required a continuous occupancy of five years, and “That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefore”.  This effectively prevented borrowing against future land. No doubt this was seen as an important safeguard against speculation, but it had another effect: since the land needed to be cultivated, and the first crop would not be ready until it had been occupied for many months, would-be homesteaders needed at last 6 months provisions (and more if they were traveling any distance) saved for themselves in order to make a successful claim, assuming (dangerously) that the land would produce an adequate crop the first harvest, and that they could not borrow substantially to get those provisions unless they already owned some other valuable collateral. 

This effectively restricted who could make use of the Homestead Act—the truly destitute, whether Freedmen in Alabama or paupers in New York, could hardly hope to make a successful claim.  Thus, while a great deal of valuable land was made available, this primarily enriched the working middle class or those who otherwise had some manner of capital to make a successful claim.  Four million claims were successfully made, peaking in 1912.  By contrast, in the peak Homesteading period (1862—1912), 20 million new immigrants arrived, the vast majority of whom were not populating the frontier, but rather living in the burgeoning cities (New York alone had 6 million people by 1912). 

Even those who did succeed in acquiring land by homesteading were not able to fully escape the realities of land distribution in the ‘new’ West.  Most major cities in the West, with the notable exception of Phoenix, were founded before the Homestead Act was passed, and thus before most Americans (including almost all African Americans) had the capacity to claim the land.  They were either seized from Mexican landowners (Los Angles, San Francisco, Santa Fe) or had already been settled by previous waves of settlers (Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver).  The most valuable land in the west today was, thus, never available to the homesteaders arriving after the 1862 Act.

At the same time as the government was giving out the vaunted 270,000 acres of land to the settlers, it also handed out 130 million acres to railroad companies between 1850 and 1871, as well as generous loans and credit to help with railroad construction, an aid of course not extended to homesteaders.  In sum, those arriving under the 1862 act were faced with a situation wherein the land under the largest markets and chief transportation routes was already spoken for—leaving them dependent on these interests if they wanted to effectively use the ‘free’ land they had been given.  This certainly contributed to their defection; despite the largess of the Republican party in championing the Homestead Act, by 1896 most of the states most impacted thereby backed William Jennings Bryan and his explicitly anti-railroad campaign.

The Homesteaders themselves clearly did not believe that the ‘free’ land was sufficient to put them on an equal footing with the real economic powers in the country, and there is plenty of evidence—particularly the growth of the tenant farming system on the plains—that they were right.  This despite their privileged position relative to Native Americans, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities, whose de jure and de facto rights to land ownership were continuously under assault in the late 19th century.

This more accurate understanding of land distribution in the West, especially of the Homestead Act, is of more than historical interest.  Drawing attention to the conscious process of how land and mineral rights were distributed in the past can inform an understanding of how they function in the present, and discussions of the most just way to use them in the future. Since land is uniquely fixed in supply, it is easy to imagine how the historical distribution of land can impact economic hierarchies a century later; thus, the realization that the Homestead Act did not distribute Western land on an equal—opportunity basis after the end of slavery can help explain the dramatic wealth inequalities seen in the 20th century. Moreover, understanding that the majority of immigrants since 1862 were never able to take advantage of the Homestead Act should also inform any discussion of why it was deemed necessary to impose immigration quotes for the first time in the 1920s—and casts doubt on the argument that it was a result of changes in a frontier that most immigrants would never see.

Most importantly, a better understanding of history erodes some of the meritocratic myths used to justify inaction on economic inequality. Much of white rural America believes their socioeconomic and political—especially electoral—advantages over African Americans and Native Americans to be earned; the claiming of land by creating value on it, ex nihlio, is a critical component of the broader American meritocratic narrative. It’s certainly the case the homesteaders worked hard for the privilege of land ownership, but the other half of the story—the forceful confiscation of that valuable land from Native Americans, as well as the effective exclusion of African Americans from the same opportunity—undermines America’s myth of the undeserving poor. 

Featured image is Homesteading at Marmarth, by Michael Christiansen

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The Antimonies of the Liberal Self-Image

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If you had asked me a few years ago what political tradition I belonged to, I would have been confused by the very question. Not only did I have little interest in politics at the time, but I had no idea that I belonged to any tradition whatsoever. I merely thought of myself as an individual— one whose political commitments were driven by common sense, personal experience, and reflection. Thus while I might have—if pushed—been able to articulate my values, I didn’t see these commitments, nor their specific meanings, as emerging from, or bound up with, any tradition at all.

The truth is I did belong to a political tradition — and I owe my values, my views on the role and purpose of government, and how I think about justice, to the active influence of that tradition. That tradition is liberalism, that is, the political tradition whose spokespeople include John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, and Martha Nussbaum, among many others. Thus I am speaking of ‘liberalism’ not in the narrow sense in which Americans speak of ‘liberals’ in a specifically partisan context, but rather what John Gray in Liberalism calls the political theory of modernity and the Enlightenment.

This is a broad and diverse tradition, which comes in both ‘classical’ (libertarian) and ‘progressive’ (liberal egalitarian) variants. But these diverse strands nevertheless find unity in a shared commitment to securing the conditions of individual autonomy or self-rule. As Larry Siedentop puts it in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, ‘the only birthright recognized by the liberal tradition is individual freedom.’ Importantly, the scope of this freedom has always been a matter of controversy and contention among liberals. Prior to the 1960s, most liberal democratic states felt it within their authority to enforce communal (traditional Judeo-Christian) standards of decency and decorum. Thus laws against blasphemy and homosexuality were commonplace, and most iconoclasm was squashed by means of intense social censure. But this changed radically in the wake of that tumultuous decade, the Sixties, which saw the emergence of a number of social movements, which significantly transformed liberal societies. During this period, the liberal commitment to autonomy merged with a romantic preoccupation with self-expression thereby expanding the scope of individual freedom in unprecedented ways. It is because of this grand synthesis of liberalism and romanticism that, as Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka has pointed out, most liberals today — whether classical or egalitarian — generally endorse the following principle: that my life goes better if I’m leading it from the inside, according to my beliefs about value. This, as I see it, is the core tenet of the modern liberal tradition, and it underwrites a range of modern institutions — from rights discourse, to the market and consumer culture, to contemporary humanitarianism — and it is this tradition that has fundamentally shaped my own sense of self.

The myth of neutrality

Why do I and so many other liberals fail to notice the importance of our participation in the tradition of liberalism? As communitarians such as Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Alasdair MacIntyre have pointed out, one of the problems with the liberal self-image is that it can lead us to deny or dismiss our social and political debts. This stems from a tendency towards a version of individualism—to be distinguished from giving priority to individual autonomy—which is atomistic; that is, unconnected to other individuals. As a result, we liberals claim to speak from a place of neutrality when in fact we speak from within a particular tradition. Moreover, we take for granted the institutions, social practices, and norms upon which our tradition relies. Communitarians also criticize the liberal tendency to view freedom and community as antithetical to one another, as if more of the one must mean less of the other. This conception of freedom emerges from the romantic notion that we all have a ‘true self’ which is pre-social in essence. In turn, becoming autonomous amounts to shedding one’s layers of cultural conditioning (be they familial, religious, or societal in origin) in order to realize who one truly is.

This self-image is not a novel construction, but rather finds deep roots in liberal political thought: in both the social contract theory of proto-liberal Thomas Hobbes, as well as that of classical liberal John Locke, the liberal self is represented as atomistic in nature. And this is also true of the liberal self in the egalitarian thought of John Rawls: in his famous critique of Rawls’s Theory of Justice Sandel aptly deemed the self implicit in Rawls’s liberal thought ‘unencumbered’, meaning without any constitutive attachments.

No doubt, the reason liberal theorists have advanced such a questionable sociology is because they have aspired to rise above the fray and remain neutral among competing options. It is the dream of every liberal philosopher that their political tradition be unlike any other, that it reflect a kind of universal perspective from which the parochialism of all others becomes clear. This is especially true of Rawls, whose political liberalism is meant to provide a kind of level playing field for the vast array of ‘comprehensive doctrines’ (or worldviews) which exist in liberal democracies.

But the problem with this approach is that it betrays reality. The truth is liberalism is not neutral, and never has been. Indeed, it is a tradition, just like any other, replete with its own set of virtues, and dependent upon an array of social practices and institutions, all of which significantly shape the identities of its adherents. It is time we liberals started admitting this—even embracing it.

The liberal response to the communitarian critique

Liberalism has long been charged by communitarians with breeding narcissistic individualists who fetishize individual freedom at the expense of community and tradition. Yet, in the wake of what became known as the liberal-communitarian debates of the 1980s a number of sociologically sensitive liberal theorists wisely began to draw attention to the significant discrepancy between liberal theory and liberal practice.

For instance, in Liberalism, Community and Culture Kymlicka argued that liberals are not against community as such; they simply seek to grant individuals the freedom to “revise their ends” should they so wish. Indeed, for liberals commitment to a community is not authentic if it is coerced or imposed from above, hence why we believe that the state ought to let individuals choose for themselves how they wish to associate. Similarly, Stephen Macedo argued in Liberal Virtues that liberals are not against notions of the common good; they merely have a different conception of what this consists of than conservatives: for liberals the common good amounts to realizing social conditions within which individuals can become autonomous (though not necessarily self-sufficient). And in Liberal Purposes William Galston bravely admitted what too few liberals before him had been willing to: that “liberalism is in fact far from fully neutral with respect to conceptions of the good.” He explained,

Liberalism does not undermine community; it is a form of community. Liberalism does not reject virtue; indeed, it needs a wide range of virtues to maintain itself. Liberalism does not thwart democratic participation; it contends only that democracy must be situated within a broader moral framework that includes both collective purposes and individual rights. Liberalism does not deny equality: it proposes an understanding of moral equality compatible with differences of individual endowment and social outcome.

The insight which pervades these three liberal theorists’ accounts is that we must distinguish between the liberal subject as classically described in liberal theory (atomistic, self-sufficient, and traditionless), and liberal subjects as we exist in social reality (social, interdependent, and constituted by a distinctly liberal tradition). The subject in traditional liberal theory comes into the world fully formed and atomistic, with desires and interests that have not been shaped by society or culture. But, as these liberal theorists correctly point out, no actual person is like this. We do not exist atomistically, but are instead the byproduct of particular communities (whether we realize it or not); that is, our values have been significantly shaped by the institutions we belong to and partake in, and for this reason we rely on them in both social and existential ways.

What we learn from these thinkers is that liberal theory may invoke a problematic sociology, but living breathing liberals don’t need to view ourselves in this way. And the fact is, many don’t. There are loads of us who, while committed to individual autonomy and self-expression, recognize that our ‘true self’ has been shaped significantly by the (liberal) communities we belong to. Our existence makes evident that communitarians and conservatives are just wrong to say liberalism necessarily precludes community of any kind, since we liberals are staunchly committed to the liberal communities to which we belong. Ultimately, all that liberalism precludes are closed and chauvinistic communities at odds with a pluralistic society — a fact too often overlooked by conservative critiques of liberal modernity.

Unfortunately, too few liberals understand this. In fact, many just cede the community card to conservatives, instead of making the case for a distinctly liberal community. Again, I think this is the result of the liberal self-image: we liberals fail to see just how much what we care about, are committed to, and love depends on liberal institutions and social practices. Indeed, modern liberals can and sometimes do embody the undesirable character painted by communitarians, but I would argue this is only when they internalize the self-image of liberal theory. Paradoxically, liberal societies function best when liberal citizens don’t internalize the liberal self-image.

In sum, liberal societies per se do not produce atomistic or selfish individuals. This occurs only when liberals fail to realize that when we look within for our ‘true self’ we are not thereby identifying some pre-social essence, but instead an essence that is significantly bound up with, and formed by, the liberal society in which they live. Thus we who wish to live in a community which prizes autonomy must understand that such a community is a community like any other (not some neutral playground for competing worldviews), for once we do so we shall come to see that championing autonomy and self-expression is not at odds with championing community — since the former is contingent upon the existence of the latter.

Toward a communitarian liberalism

What liberals today must recognize is that the liberal tradition at its best has always sought to synthesize the following kernels of wisdom: because we are social beings we need community, but community and autonomy are not at odds. This is because realizing our ‘true selves’ depends upon the survival of particular communities, whether we acknowledge this or not. At the same time, because life is better when lived from the inside, we must create institutions and norms which prioritize individual freedom, and allow individuals to make their own mistakes. This is the basis for liberal community.

I call this a kind of communitarian liberalism (inspired by the great social theorist Émile Durkheim), for it endorses liberalism from a communitarian standpoint, one which recognizes that a liberal society can only flourish provided liberal social practices and institutions are cultivated and protected.

So long as we liberals accept and embrace the liberal self-image — of ourselves as atomistic individuals whose freedom is attained by means of shedding our constitutive attachments — we, and everyone else, shall suffer. For such a self-image, when taken seriously, can lead only to soulless communities and crushing anomie, not to mention brutal selfishness and offensive inequality.

What is required then is twofold: first, liberals must reject the liberal self-image: we must learn to see ourselves as inheritors of a political tradition, and as dependent upon the existence of a distinctly liberal community. Second, we liberals must challenge the sociologically naïve account of freedom presumed in liberal theory. To be free cannot mean to shed our selves of all the influences of society or culture, for while these might in some instances oppress us, they also provide us with the moral resources to identify and call out oppression.

Much like everyone else, we liberals have been formed and shaped by a particular tradition, replete with its own set of virtues, practices, and moral ideals. Until we embrace this we shall lack the ability to defend ourselves against the many critics hostile to liberalism. But more importantly, only then shall we truly be able to live up to the ideals of our venerable tradition.

Featured image is Declaration of the Rights of Man Bi-centenial statue, by Elliot Brown

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Chapter 6 Page 31

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