On the Virtue of Self-Rule

I wrote a bit on the virtue of self-rule in my last post, Why I Reject Marxism. I suggested that people within a collectivist society, rather than hoping for the inauguration of utopia, should instead cultivate within themselves the lineaments of that utopia. Namely, self-rule. But what is self-rule, and how ought it to be manifested? Can we define self-rule in a satisfactory way? I will attempt.

Self-rule is the capacity to fully own one’s actions, as well as their consequences. The man in prison, deprived of livelihood and liberty, is equally as liable for what he does as the man outside. The president of a nation is as equally liable for what he does as the average citizen on the street. Dodging responsibility for doing wrong (or, rarely, for doing right); blaming one’s behavior on exterior factors such as parents, friends, the state, culture, or an institutional whatever; rationalizing the negativity of one’s actions by pointing to the similar actions of others; or otherwise masking one’s responsibility in some cloak of self-righteousness, rationalization, or victim-blaming, or combination thereof are all behaviors of the man who cannot rule himself, because he does not understand that it is he, and he alone, who is responsible for what he does. This is not to say that exterior factors do not impinge on our lives; to deny that is obviously false. This is to say that how we react in response to these external actions is what defines us as men of self-rule, or as children. Self-rule truly begins when a man understands he alone bears responsibility.

Following on this, the man that knows he alone bears responsibility for what he does knows also that no one can ever be said to be responsible for him. The state is not obligated to provide him with food, money, or birth control pills. His neighbor is not obligated to build him a road so he can drive to work. His parents are not obligated to keep him in perpetual infancy. When he understands that his responsibility for his life is his alone, then he must begin to act with realization of this truth. He must produce, not just have things produced for him: he must take up an industry, converting his labor into something tangible that he can offer to the world. He must repay his debts and mind his contracts: buying a service that is overpriced, as I and other university students have done, is no excuse for reneging on our promises to our creditors after the fact. He must understand that charity comes from the willing heart, and is not pried from the taut fingers of a clenched fist. All the good that he can expect in his life, he must expect from his own industry, and not through thievery of other’s work.

The above ideas stem from the deeper realization that there is little in our actual power. Indeed, self-rule is fundamentally the understanding of what is in one’s own power, and what is not. A major avenue through which I came to libertarianism as a political philosophy was Stoic ethics. I’ve returned to Marcus Aurelius for the last decade, since I bought my first edition of his Meditations. If we are to rule ourselves, we must know what we are capable of ruling, and through a sober reflection we see that we have current ownership over our possessions, our bodies, and our minds, all in greater or lesser degree in relation to our own individual differences of chance or industry. Yet, we see that our possessions are ephemeral. They may be taken from us at any time, whether through a trick of the market or the sadistic power grab of an overreaching government. Our bodies will not only age, falter, and die, but can be taken into possession by others, whether individuals or the state. There is only one place where a man ever has unbridled freedom: the mind. When we realize that is all we truly own, then we will come to focus our efforts broadly on perfection of that mind. Through disciplining our minds, we can move outwards again: discipline of the mind leads to that of the body, and thence to that of our external affairs. A man’s property is nothing but assurance against privation in the present, and is not the foundation of his self-rule. The only thing that can defend against that is the power of the mind to overcome.

Understanding that we are essentially powerless in the world does not obviate from the need to act in it. To be is to do, after all. What this knowledge presents to us is that everything we do may be taken away. It may fail to work. It may never manifest at all. But we do it anyway, not because it will succeed, but because actions that are good – morally praiseworthy things from mundane work to heroic deeds – are worthy in and of themselves. The baker who goes every day to his baker’s shop, makes bread, and sells it to his neighbors is doing something good because he is providing a service of value, he is providing for himself, and for his community. The man who lays bricks can walk by the buildings he has constructed until the end of his days, confident in the knowledge that he has directly contributed to the wellbeing of another.

This brings me to my last point about self-rule. Human beings were not made to be individuals, their industry was not made for just themselves, but everything that is good, just, and industrious always is in reference to a community. The great divergence between the libertarian and the collectivist is that the former sees community as a group of autonomous peers, collaborating selfishly for their own benefit but, directly or indirectly, contributing to the benefit of all. The latter sees community as a being with independent existence, whose needs must be placed above those of its individual members: we must take the money of our citizens to build schools and hospitals, we must forbid them from drugs and alcohol so that they will be industrious, we must embroil them in foreign wars so they will be patriotic, because it is for the greater good. Hogwash. Remember the words of Aurelius: “We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature.” Analyzing this, the hands and the feet cooperate as part of an ordered whole, a body, and they do so because they must – not a must of coercion, but a must of willing cooperation with each other. The foot does the work that the hand cannot do, and the reverse: the feet bring us to food, and the hands craft it and bring it to our mouths. Extrapolating this to the community, each member must interact for the good of the whole, because each member is integral to that whole. Take away one member, and there is diminishment. Rather than this supporting a collectivist viewpoint, it instead supports the absolute preciousness of the members of our community.

Self-rule is to realize who and what you are, and to act accordingly. We are responsible for ourselves, and once we realize this, we come to rule ourselves. We know that we have no obligations to others, and others have no obligations to us, inherently speaking. At the same time as we consider ourselves to be individuals, we then must turn to how we act individually within communities, and we see that our community is naturally suited for cooperation. Thenceforth, when we interact with other men of self-rule within our community, our interactions become voluntary, the natural expression of our free choices. We help others, not because we are forced, but because it is the completely free expression of our desires to fulfill what we are. Heavy is the head that wears the crown alone. Light is the head that shares it.

Introducing John Milton: Republican and Poet (1608-1674)

John Milton is one of the major figures in the history of English literature. His poetry, particularly but certainly not only his epic Paradise Lost, has conditioned all of English literature since his own time. He was also a major political writer and advocate of liberty.

In some ways his appeal has become a bit more limited with the decline of religion as a major part of life in Britain and other English speaking countries, but he is still read and has influence on the non-religious no less than the religious. He came from a time when political and literary activity in England (strictly speaking there was no Britain or Great Britain in terms of the legal state until 1707, before which there was a union of three kingdoms or states, England, Scotland and Ireland with no superseding state on top) and across Europe was very tied up with religion. Both of the greatest English political philosophers of the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, were centrally concerned with the relation of the state to religion. The last thinker I discussed, James Harrington, though not very religious in orientation, still discusses the Biblical ancient Jews in his political writing.

Milton was a Puritan in religion and a republican in politics. To say he was a Puritan is to say he was one of the more radical Protestants outside of the mainstream of the state church as it existed under English kings. Puritan was originally a pejorative label associating religious dissenters and radicals with joyless fanaticism. This might have been an accurate description of some Puritans, but not all and certainly not Milton. He travelled in Catholic Europe where he made friends and intellectual interlocutors. He advocated for the right to divorce, which had been no more recognised in Protestant England after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century than in preceding Catholic England. His learning, including that of ancient pagan classics, was greater than normal for bigoted fanatics. Furthermore, his poetry shows great joy in the pleasure of words and imagination, traits uncharacteristic of the bigot whose greatest pleasure is to think of his enemy burning in hellfire.

Even the more joyless kind of Puritan often showed a spirit of equality in social life, democracy in church government, and the value of all honest work, along with a belief in enough education for children to at least study the Bible carefully and intelligently, which played a large role in the growth of liberty, commercial society and civil institutions in England. This was not an era where complete religious tolerance, or complete independence of the individual from the state, was at all mainstream and even the most tolerant states (the Netherlands being the best candidate) did not have complete equality between faiths or tolerance for open non-believers.  For the time, Milton was at the more tolerant end of the spectrum and so were many other Puritans, despite the forbidding associations of that term.

Milton lived through through the Civil War (1642-1651) between Crown and Parliament and was a strong supporter of Parliament as were Puritans in general, though Milton’s political views should also be seen in the light of his classical learning and respect for the republics of ancient Greece and Rome.

Parliament’s victory lead to the creation of an English republic known as the Commonwealth in 1649, and Milton’s advocacy of republicanism led to an appointment as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, an office which required him to compose correspondence with foreign governments in Latin and continue a defence of republicanism for a European audience. Milton continued in this post as the Commonwealth gave way to the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, the most outstanding general of the parliamentary army. This was not an explicit repudiation of republicanism, but did reflect the difficulties of organising parliamentary government in a country used to monarchical governments.

Parliaments were very happy to offer Cromwell powers he was not ready to accept, and even the explicit title of king. Cromwell essentially served as an uncrowned king, making various experiments with parliamentary and military administration. Cromwell is sometimes portrayed as a religious fanatic and tyrant, but he restrained the intolerance of the most radical Puritans and was not religiously intolerant by the standards of the era. His tendency towards more militaristic and personal government reflected institutional failures rather than a plan for absolute personal power. He purged and selected parliaments, but all previous parliaments had presumed the subservience of MPs to monarchical domination and conformity to the state church.

Cromwell’s darkest reputation arose in Ireland, but tales of Cromwellian massacres of Irish Catholic civilians are now agreed by Irish historians to be highly exaggerated. What he was guilty of was completion of a long process of subordinating Ireland to England, and of removing power and landed property from the Catholic majority. Deplorable as this was, it was no more than the standard statecraft of the time. Cromwell did not establish an arbitrary violent despotism in England. He largely operated within the law and reformed the administration of the nation in an efficient and enduring way. He did not acquire spectacular wealth or establish a court of ostentatious luxury. Though Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard inherited the Lord Protectorship, Cromwell had not prepared the way for the dynastic rule of his family, and power returned to the previous royal family.

I have discussed Cromwell’s status as a figure in English history to show how a sincere republican like Milton could continue in his state position. There is no reason to think he did so for reasons of acquiring wealth or addiction to power. He remained true to his principles after the return of the monarchy, unlike many, and was in real danger of very serious legal consequences. Fortunately those who respected him in the new regime, after abandoning the old regime, intervened and Milton was able to live out his life peacefully though in rather simple style for one of the greater writers of the time.

Milton’s writings, along with the failed republican experiment and the Cromwellian administrative reforms, established the conditions for a second concealed republican revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which under the pretence of restoring a traditional relation between monarchy and nation, in practice established a successful aristocratic-commercial republic under a monarch who could only act in co-operation with Parliament.

Next I will begin the investigation of Milton’s writings.

Why I Reject Marxism

I was recently given a copy of History of Political Philosophy edited by Leo Strauss and his successor, Joseph Cropsey. It’s a superb book, a well curated collection of essays by distinguished scholars in the field covering the time period from Thucydides to Martin Heidegger. Each essay succinctly covers, in about 20-30 pages, the political thought, life, and times of each of the figures studied. You really all should buy it.

That’s not the reason I’m writing, though. I’ve always felt a visceral disdain for Marxism, from the repugnant nature of its premises (I side with Aristotle: “But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good” Politics Book VII 3.5, 1325.b) to the ugly cant of its diction. There is nothing in it that appeals to me, and its followers whom I have encountered, either snide petit bourgeois professors with manicured fingernails and soft hands, or the spoiled and deluded children of middle-class families, have not helped my perception. Always and interestingly for me is that I have never met a single member of the proletariat who has actually referred to himself as such, or has shown anything but a similarly gut hatred of Marxist rhetoric. Marx’s own anti-Semitism is not endearing to a Jew like me, either (I recommend Sander GIlman’s work, Jewish Self-Hatred, for those who would like more information).

Despite my misgivings, I have not found such a beautiful encapsulation of why I reject Marxism until I read Cropsey’s essay on the great thinker:

Unexpectedly, we now see coming into view a ground of agreement between ancients and pre-Marxian moderns on this most important point: political life rests upon the imperfection of man and continues to exist because human nature rules out the elevation of all men to the level of excellence. The connection between civil government and man’s imperfection is expressed by Rousseau, for example, in the form of the distinction between state and society: men can be social while uncorrupted, but in political community they prey and are preyed upon by one another. At the beginning of Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,t he latter negatively by restraining our vices… The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Rousseau may be said to have suggested, via the doctrine of the perfectibility of man, that government may be more and more replaced by society: in the perfect freedom of self-government, coercion loses most of its sting. But Rousseau did not at all suppose that all men would become philosophic, nor that there is any perfect substitute for the full rationality of men that would render coercion and rhetoric of all kind, i.e. political life, dispensable. He did not, in brief, expect ordinary selfishness imply to disappear from among the generality of men.

What in Rousseau was a limited suggestion, although an emphatic one, came to be the dogmatic core of a confident prognosis, a strident propaganda, and a revolutionary incitation in Marx: the state or political order will wholly wither away, and homogeneous mankind will live socially under the rule of absolute benevolence – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No longer will duty be performed incidentally to the pursuit of selfish interest. The link between duty and interest, which is to say the subordination of duty to interest, will be broken once and for all by the abolition of the categories ‘duty’ and ‘interest.’ They will be abolished by the revision of the property relations, by the inauguration of a new economics which will bring on the full perfection of human nature via the transcendence of production for exchange.

Marxism is not simply another political system, or one more ideology. It proposes nothing less than the end of the West – of political life, philosophy, and religion – as the foregoing summary indicates. Perhaps we should look forward with eager anticipation to the end of the West – but we cannot know whether we should without rationally examining the project for strangling philosophy. That rational examination is part of the philosophical quest itself. We cannot free ourselves of philosophy, if only because we must philosophize to pass judgment on philosophy. We begin to suspect the soundness of the anti-philosophic historicism of Marx. Observing its weakness prepares us to concede that history can make room for spiritually impoverished societies: the viability of Marxist nations is a sign not of the soundness of Marx’s prophecy but of the unsoundness of the sanguine historicism on which he based it. We have every right to conclude that history is the opiate of the masses.

Marx’s utopia is impossible because he desires perfection in men, perfection that pre-Marxian philosophers rightly saw as within the province of no one but the philosophical sages. Successful Marxists that came after him maintain their faith in the prognostications of orthodox Marxism in principle but reject it in practice. Mao, for example, rejected his more zealous comrades’ complaints that he had not abolished capitalism in the countryside, arguing that to do so would be inappropriate for a China that had never had a capitalist economy. The fruits of his relative moderation are seen in the totalitarian state he created, which lacked either economic or social development towards any goal but consolidation of the Politburo’s power. When Marxists claim that there has never been a truly socialist state, they are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It is not because socialism has not been fully tried, but because doing so is completely impossible. This impossibility is rooted in man’s very nature, biologically, physically, culturally determined but, crucially, determined without an end. There is no final cause in history. There is only flux, a notion Marx inherited from Heraclitus and stupidly wed to Hegelian progressivism, coming up with the paradoxical idea that the historical change by which past societies arose and fell apart would somehow come to an end in the decay of capitalism.

Libertarianism is an equally utopian vision, but the viability of a libertarian project is considerably rosier, as its utopia does not call for the radical transformation of the human being. Indeed, doing so would conflict with its fundamental principles. Rather, it calls for the harnessing of man’s most self-interested tendencies for a good purpose: selfishness leading to production, production leading to trade, trade to peace and prosperity. The realization of libertarianism in practice is possible. It is a vision of, not better selves, but a better self-actualization of the selves that we possess. Realizing this, we must not make the same mistake that Marx made, for as the popularity of our philosophy shows, we are not the majority. Not even close. We probably never will be. The political life, the state and its coercions, will likely never cease to be a factor in our lives. But what we can do, and what we ought to do, is actualize in ourselves the faculty of self-rule, upon which may be built the more virtuous state.

Garbage could be beautiful

And I don’t mean in the artistic sense, though that’s an option and one that sheds light on the larger question of what to do with garbage. I recently heard a podcast on garbage incineration; how it’s widespread in Europe as a way to generate electricity and reduce the need for landfills. The discussants were wondering why America doesn’t do more of that and concluded that progress was barred by a combination of NIMBYism and the fervor of recycling enthusiasts. Whether you agree with the producer of that segment or not, they are certainly correct that this industry is stagnant, and this rigidity results in plenty of unnecessary inefficiencies. But I think the real low hanging fruit is in waste collection.

The other day I saw a garbage truck and it struck me that the institution of “garbage day” is just a hold-over from the days before apps and algorithms were available to efficiently route garbage trucks to where they’re needed. For that matter, the trucks could be different; the service level could be different, and surely resources could be saved.

There are plenty of ways garbage could be picked up, and they could all coexist next to one another. Different towns and different neighborhoods

This sort of competition would be beautiful. The results would be better service, less room for corruption, clean trucks taking away your garbage when it’s necessary and saving resources* in the process. Rich neighborhoods would have sleek electric wagons grabbing their trash cans from the side of the garage in the middle of the night. In poor and rural neighborhoods something more like Uber would give the out-of-work construction worker a  way to pay for his truck.

The problems are surely due to regulations that limit innovation and competition. So, how could we open up this market? Debate and committees is the correct response, but it’s not the only one. “If I were a Silicon Valley millionaire,” I thought while driving past that truck, “I could change this, and probably make a buck doing it.”

So here’s the exciting part: A wealthy libertarian-type benefactor (or even a non-profit funded through a Kickstarter campaign (don’t forget to comment on this article!) could make a bet with the mayor of some city (which would need certain features to be a viable first candidate) that privatization would work. The bet goes like this:

  1. Pass legislation that opens up genuine competition in trash collection in one year.
  2. Private garbage companies spring into existence and do a better job at a better price (as determined by a study we will pay for by a consultant you will pick).
  3. If (2) does not happen, we will pick up the tab at your current provider for one year.

Obviously, our first hurdle is structuring the bet property to avoid problems like Waste Management from abusing their position. And that’s probably a big problem. But here’s the thing: if someone can figure this out, and motivate the right people to contribute, it will:

  1. Make it easier for an electorate/politicians to face the risk that something will go horribly wrong, and
  2. Create a profit opportunity for the (probably) tech billionaire backing this.

Opening up waste collection to competition allows for the possibility of the next Uber or AirBnB being in the garbage business. And for that matter, this betting approach might be used for other industries. For Uber to use this approach would be even easier. They would have to pay for a study on transportation in some city, and could offer to bet some lump sum to the city if competition doesn’t work.

*”Saving resources” has practically become a verbal tic with me. I use it as a synonym for the much less evocative “reducing costs.”

Epistemological modesty and unintended consequences

What has attracted me most to libertarianism – next to the Non-Aggression Principle – is its attitude towards our knowledge which can be described as epistemologically modest. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with our knowledge: how do we know what we know, what is the nature of our knowledge, what is its scope, and what is justified belief? Libertarianism is modest in the sense that it promotes an awareness of how little we know about the social forces in our society, and what the particular consequences are when certain social forces are at play.

In ‘The Pretense of Knowledge’ (1974), Friedrich Hayek had given an excellent account on the libertarian epistemological modesty. He writes that when policy makers are epistemologically immodest – meaning that they unjustly believe that they truly understand the social world to the extent that they can plan or direct certain social forces to achieve certain ends – they will do more harm than good in their efforts to improve the social order. Hayek argues that each individual knows just a fraction of what is collectively known. Since knowledge is decentralized and each individual has unique information with regards to his or her particular circumstances, it is best to leave those with local knowledge to take decisions on how to plan their lives. Unfortunately, many do-gooders ignore Hayek’s advice and attempt to plan and control society. The dangers of epistemological immodesty are visible all around us. Take for example the NATO-led war campaign against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. The meddling with Libya’s internal affairs has led to many unintended consequences that were totally unforeseen by most politicians: in a country that was previously relatively peaceful, manifold precious lives have perished, many have been wounded, many children have become orphaned, millions of people are trying to flee the civil war and to find refuge in other countries, ISIS has taken control of several parts in Libya, and terrorism has now become more widespread. Politicians who believed that they knew enough about the social forces in Libya, and how they could overthrow Gaddafi and turn it into a peaceful democracy have been dead wrong.

The epistemologically modest libertarian knows that military, economic, and political interventionism, always leads to unintended consequences. It is therefore best to refrain ourselves from such interventions as much as possible. This anti-planning sentiment had been graciously expressed by the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer when he discussed world affairs:

It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.[1]

[1] I cannot verify the authenticity of this quote. It was attributed to Robert Oppenheimer by Alan Watts.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): Second of Two Parts

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by this. One of the most influential advocates of liberty in British history was inspired by an Italian against an English writer. Though Harrington does refer favourably to Hobbes’ own mentor, Francis Bacon, philosopher, chief minister to the monarchy, jurist, and writer of utopian political fiction. Harrington does not mention the Hobbes-Bacon relation, and his his use of Bacon’s thought suggests a fascination with the kind of monarchism advocated by Bacon which mixes legalism with the application of scientific method to the prudential art of government. Harrington, it appears, wanted republicanism to incorporate such aspects, creating some distance from ancient republicanism in which law comes from tradition and wise individuals rather than the kind of centralised accumulation of new laws and a judicial apparatus to apply them which is what Bacon was dealing with and which also influenced Hobbes. Harrington’s interest in what well run monarchies with some respect for law can teach republics also expresses itself in remarks on the Ottoman Empire and on the famous chief minister of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the key figures in the development of the modern state and modern statecraft. Harrington regrets lack of knowledge of the principles underlying Richelieu’s formidable achievements in promoting peace within France and taking France above Spain as the leading European power of the time.

When Harrington is focused on republics strictly speaking, he has two main concerns: land distribution, formation of the right kind of aristocracy. These concerns overlap as questions of concentration of land are also questions of what kind of aristocracy might exist. Harrington resists what he regards as the too extreme devotion of the Ancient Athenians to democracy, which did not allow an effective aristocracy to form. As with early modern attitudes to Plato, his preference for Sparta is rather against modern sensibility. However, that preference ran up to the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States which was deliberately designed to prevent the ‘excesses’ of Athenian democracy and promote a ‘balanced’ republic like those of Rome or Sparta which had a long life based on reserving some powers for the aristocratic parts of the political system.

Harrington’s thoughts about aristocracy are directed towards forming a changing open class of people who provide political leadership and resist the wilder extremes and instability of popular opinion. This is more or less a project for the formation of an effective version of what is now generally referred to as a political class or a political elite. Harrington’s belief that the aristocracy should change in composition and exist in balance with the preferences of the common people lead him to oppose land distribution of a kind which created a rigid permanent oligarchy aristocracy of the richest landowners. Laws to prevent this are referred to by Harrington as ‘the agrarian’, with consideration of examples from antiquity and from his own time. He argues against primogeniture (land going to the eldest son) and in favour of equal division of land between the children of landowners which he suggests as well as having political benefits will reduce loveless marriages designed to get propertyless daughters of the aristocracy married to a major landowner. In a rather more general way, he seems sympathetic to schemes to prevent concentrations of landed property. Such apparent interference with property rights may look at odds with how ideas of liberty develop in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition, but Harrington was living at a time when it was very difficult to disassociate land ownership and political power, and more generally difficult to disassociate economic status and political rights.

It takes the continuous  greater development of commercial society which Locke reacts to at the end of the seventeenth century to see that property ownership should be seen in terms of transferable rights and the public benefits of land owned by whoever being part of a commercial system in which its products are traded to everyone’s benefit. The other side of Harrington’s assumption, highly normal for the time, that political power comes from land ownership, is that servants and the economically dependent cannot have full political rights and are not part of the democratic political system. The democratic system that elects an open changing aristocracy in some form of senate along with a a very complex series of other elections of public officials advocated by Harrington. This was enough to make Harrington seem like a fanatic for extreme democracy until democracy did begin to appear in the British political system, with the extension of the franchise in the late nineteenth century following on (but not immediately at all) from earlier agitation on the part of the new industrial working class. His writing is bit frustrating and can seem a bit remote from current ideas of liberty, but in historical context he made a major contribution to the growth of law and liberty in Britain. He deserves to be read by anyone who wishes for a really deep understanding of the development of ideas of government constrained by law and liberty.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.