Reclaiming Society and Community

Published December 14, 2016

Much of the confusion in current political discourse is attributable to a profound error inherited from Progressive Era thought. For early progressives — and no less Italian Fascists and German nationalists — the state was the true embodiment of the social will, the thinking, acting entity of which individual people are only one part.

Many Americans still tacitly accept the idea, if only a watered-down interpretation of it, the state is coextensive with the people. For example, too many believe the government school in their neighborhood is the community’s school and the public library down the street really does belong to the public. In short, they believe the government’s property is owned by the people collectively, but if this were so, if there were some kind of enforceable agreement granting us concrete rights as citizens through which we might hold the government to account, then perhaps libertarians wouldn’t have to worry. Government would be a mere custodian, our agent, safeguarding our property for our collective benefit.

Individualists unequivocally acknowledge the need for and importance of collective action. Only the lazily drawn caricatures of individualists and libertarians would deny it; the importance of planning, coordination, and collective action are central features of the thinking of liberty-minded people. The questions that really matter have to do with how coordination in society is to take place and, in Friedrich Hayek’s words, “who is to do the planning?”

It is a narrow, self-contradictory conception of collective action that facilely reduces it to government action, the distinguishing mark of which is cooperation under duress. It is as if progressives can conceive of no social coordination without coercion and violence, without government edicts and guns to back them. Yet, it is precisely this element of government’s definition they forget (or never knew) because so many have been beguiled by the state’s altruistic rhetoric. The government and the community are conflated without thought to the deep differences between them, both in theory and in practice. Ross Douthat summarized the progressives’ idea in a 2012 column for the New York Times: “In this worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good.”

It is worth comparing this admittedly appealing notion to the behavior of actual existing governments. Just as you have no cognizable claim over the local government school, neither do you have any contractual right to the monies the government has taken from you through, for instance, Social Security taxes. The state does not recognize you as a coequal, worthy of respect in the exchange of reciprocal promises; it rather regards you as a subject whose rights are entirely contingent. And herein lies the insidiousness of positive rights — the “rights” to health care, college education, retirement security, and the like; we will, on the strength of the government’s worthless word, give up every liberty that matters to obtain them without a guarantee of results or a return on our investment.

Continuing with the Social Security example, as Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff observed back in July, the system is “now $32 trillion in the red.” Here, the only reasonable interpretation of the government’s actions is it has effectively repudiated its promises. Presented with such outrageous circumstances, contract law would grant us the right to demand “adequate assurance of due performance,” to withdraw from the agreement and its terms until we received that assurance. But alas, there is no contract that binds the state to its commitments. The unscrupulous actions of the federal government mock our participation in that putative social contract. Today, government neither works for you nor feels that it owes you anything; it serves its own institutional interests, committed to the survival of its bloated bureaucracies and those of various powerful pressure groups, from big labor to Wall Street banks. So much for “the things we choose to do together.” In the end, government is faithless, bound by no promise.

As the great classical liberal Frédéric Bastiat understood in 1850, all attempts to accomplish social cooperation and fraternity through government force are destructive to liberty. Warning of the dangers of government’s “false philanthropy,” Bastiat argued, “[I]t is impossible…. to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary.” He continues, “I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being legally trampled underfoot.”

Forced community is a contradiction in terms. It may be that progressives consider the government’s violence and threats necessary or justified; but if that’s so, then they ought to make that argument, not the one they actually make: Government is just the expression of our consensual cooperation. Some of progressives’ cheery communalist rhetoric is, perhaps, intended to mislead or obfuscate, but to be sure, most of it is expressed quite sincerely. A dearth of genuine good intentions has never been the problem. Progressivism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the state and that of synergistic social efforts.

Government, at its best, is there to maintain certain baseline rules: to protect life, liberty, and property so that genuinely cooperative projects can proceed in peace. The list of things we want government to do ought to be short precisely because we want to maximize the sphere of cooperative social action, which carries on today in spite of our imperious government, not because of it. As government grows, it sucks up all the oxygen in the room, narrowing the space within which the spontaneous pursuits of a free society express themselves. Private enterprise, charitable societies, churches, and affinity groups of various kinds are constricted, stunted by the crushing gravity of the modern administrative state. If we want cooperation and community, we must return to freedom and constitutionally limited government, reclaiming ground for society as against government.

[Originally Published at American Thinker]