Why Republican Libertarianism? III

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.

For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.

Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).

Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.

All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.

There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.

The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.

Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.

It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.

Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.

The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.

Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.

Why Republican Libertarianism? II

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

We can confirm Arendt’s sense that ancient Athenian democracy was not concerned with collective confiscation of private economic goods, by looking at the most famous political speech of ancient Greece. That is the funeral oration delivered by Pericles in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarchic-militaristic Sparta. Pericles states that in Athens there is no shame in poverty, only in not struggling with poverty (clearly referring to an individual struggle), and that poverty is no barrier to a place in political life. Pericles also refers to the greater tolerance of the different characteristics of other citizens in Athens compared with Sparta, and that bravery of the Athenian soldiers he mourns, so though the Athenian society does not put the military life as much at the centre as Sparta, it can show just as much courage in war.

As we can see, republicanism is the most historically situated form of political theory, aiming for continue a way of thinking about political community that goes back to Aristotle in fourth century BCE Athens. It was the tradition that runs through Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero in antiquity which informed the understanding of liberty in the classical liberals, in Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Constant, de Stael, J.S. Mill, and so on.

Their understanding also included the idea that there were differences between ancient and modern societies, particularly the greater emphasis on commerce in modern societies, which modified the understanding of liberty so that the liberty pursed by the moderns would be and should be different from the liberty pursued by the ancients, as summarised by Benjamin Constant in his speech ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’ (1816).

However, Constant did not argue for a complete opposition between the two. He noted the commercial life of ancient Athens and its greater cultural openness than many ancient states. So that though Athens still shared in the tendency of ancient states to  impose conformity to officially defined religion and manners, it was less extreme than many. The republic of Carthage, defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE, has also been mentioned by some as an ancient republic in which sea trade was at the centre of life, and since ships were the best means of trade in antiquity, that meant it was one of the commercial republics of antiquity. Montesquieu in particular noted that Carthage shared republican political forms with Rome, in which a citizen assembly governed the city in co-operation with an oligarchic-aristocratic council (the Senate in the case of Rome), but had a different attitude to trade and commercial life.

So though the classical liberals emphasised the differences between ancient and modern liberty, they did not simply reject ancient liberty, and did not reject the republican tradition. They found the centrality of war to ancient life, the relatively static political economy and commercial life, and the attempts of the state to enforce virtue to be different from what they hoped for from modern liberty.  The classical liberals also saw liberty growing in ancient republics and thought there was some link between the conditions of liberty and a public culture of shared concerns between citizens.

The laws and institutions necessary to liberty require some support from a feeling of citizenship and joint political enterprise. The need to replicate the solidarity of ancient societies based on preparedness for war is one of the reasons that Smith gives for advocating some public role in promoting education, though with a preference for most education to be provided by private institutions rather than the state.

It is useful to look at the views of the apparent greatest classical liberal defender of monarchy, Montesquieu, to see the importance of the ancient republican tradition for modern liberalism. Montesquieu suggests that a monarchy of the kind that existed in France in the eighteenth century is good for commerce and liberty where it rests on institutions that have some independence of the monarchy such as law courts and a land owning aristocracy.

However, the legal tradition he though guaranteed such liberty in France, is something he traced back to the German invaders of ancient Gaul during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. They brought the customary laws of tribes in the German forests which where essentially republics as kings existed to lead in war and relied on popular support. Montesquieu is a bit more ambiguous than this in his description of the ancient Germans, as he is generally an ambiguous thinker with regard to his views on monarchies and republics, and which are the best for liberty.

He recognised both a law governed ‘moderate’ forms of government opposed to despotism. He recognises the commercial capacities of the Athenian and Carthaginian republics. For his own time, he recognises England as a disguised republic (in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was essentially an oligarchic-aristocratic republic with a very constrained monarchy) which has a leading role in the era with regard to liberty and commerce. Montesquieu’s main criticisms of England relate to missing some aspects of a culture or honour and aristocratic courtesy, rather than any criticism of substance.

Why Republican Libertarianism? I

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

Republicanism has been on the rise as a term in political theory debates since the late 1990s, where it has joined egalitarian liberalism (that is a version of liberalism in which the state decides on income and wealth distribution, markedly more flat than the distribution achieved by the market, at least in intention), communitarianism, and libertarianism in the main recognised streams of political theory along with radical democracy, deliberative democracy, and Marxism.

The egalitarian liberal position emphasis rights, justice, and rational political procedures claiming that constituently employed they lead to a morally based economic pattern of distribution distinct from the relatively spontaneous activities of the market and civil society. Libertarianism (covering anything that might be regarded as classical liberal or libertarian) tends to have the same basis and argue that correct understanding leads to a more market based individualistic view of how economic goods should be distributed.

Communitarianism is most economically egalitarian but includes social conservatives as well as social liberals. It argues that views about justice have proper foundation in the rules according to which humans live in, form, and maintain communities, rather than individual rights. It tends to be anti-libertarian but a communitarianism based on voluntary communities below the level of the state, or independent of the state, can converge with form of libertarianism emphasising the freedom to create voluntary communities of those with shared visions of the good life, socialist, capitalist or anything else.

Marxism is, I presume, well known enough to need no introduction and radical democracy is the attempt to make Marxism, or something like it, compatible with liberalism in democracy and rights, and maybe even compatible with libertarianism in some social and moral issues. Deliberative democracy is the view that political institutions and laws should rest on a constant process of public discussion and negotiation, presumed to engage most of the population.

Simply explained, republicanism is the view that political institutions and laws rest on the tendency for human communities to have a political aspect, and liberty to have some aspect of rights of political participation, where there is some life is devoted to discussion of the best institutions, laws, and policies for maintaining liberty. If all this sounds rather libertarian, it has to be said that republican political theory in its current manifestation, which goes back to the late 90s, has used there same arguments as egalitarianism, but taking the understanding of liberty in a different direction.

In the egalitarian liberal understanding, liberty is just as much to do with state designed economic equality, or limitations on inequality, as individual rights to life, property, and freely chosen version of the individual good life. From the egalitarian liberal perspective, which theorises the views of new liberals, constructive liberals, social liberals, and progressives since the late nineteenth century, ‘liberty’ must include the idea of some equality in the distribution of economic goods as part of the fairness or equality of respect, which is part of those aspects of liberty concerned with individual rights under law.

The idea of republicanism as now discussed in academic circles, at least those largely concerned with a ‘normative theory’ approach to political theory emphasising conceptual analysis  was developed by the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit (long based between the US and Australia). Pettit rests his arguments on a mixture of a historical republican tradition going back to antiquity, and arguments about the meaning of liberty and what kinds of liberty there are. The arguments in Pettit, like many other discussions of liberty, refer back to a famous paper by the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), which rest on a view of the history of political ideas, so again we come back to a historical argument.

Republicanism in recent political thought has another inspiration, (at least for those concerned with the more cultural, literary, historical, and interpretative aspects of political theory) from an a mid twentieth century writer on politics and philosophy, Hannah Arendt. Arendt is hard to situate politically, and has been taken up both by radical democrats and conservatives. She was rather evasive on the subject of socialism versus capitalism, however the basis in her thought for this was that political issues should be distinguished from social welfare issues, which certainly seems to exclude the possibility of socialist or even egalitarian liberal ideas entering into her basic political assumptions.

Arendt looked back to ancient Athens, in contrast with Pettit who takes Rome as his starting point, and to a culture of competition to prove excellence, which was aristocratic in origin. Athens at the the time it was home to Aristotle, as well as many other notable cultural and philosophical figures, was a democracy based on citizens meeting in the centre of the city to make laws and make the major decisions about state actions.

For Arendt, the political culture of the democracy took up the aristocratic tradition of competitiveness to produce a political life that itself cultivated excellence through contests, and a concern with the public good, at the same time as it was producing great culture, as part of the same pattern. She points to the largely political decision making of the assembly, which was not engaged in attempts to change shares of economic goods.

Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne II: Marie de Gournay (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Marie Le Jars de Gournay (1565-1646) was a minor aristocrat from Sancerre in central France who became a leading scholar and writer of her time, and an important advocate of women’s liberty through her scholarly career against the dismissive attitude of powerful men of the time, and through her writing in favour of equality between men and women. She was a friend of Michel de Montaigne, one of the great historical advocates of liberty if in a rather enigmatic manner, and he even treated her as an adoptive daughter. After the death of Montaigne, she lived on the Montaigne estate as a guest of the family, while preparing the third edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a contribution to the history of thought and thinking about liberty in itself.

Gournay’s work in the transmission of Montaigne’s thought is though just one episode in a life of writing covering translations of the classics, literary compositions, and essays. Two essays in particular mark important moments in the case for liberty to apply equally between the two sexes: The Ladies’ Complaint and Equality of Men and Women. In these brief, but rich texts, Gournay argues that there can be no liberty, where goods are denied, so since women have been deprived of the goods of equal esteem, there is no liberty.

She points to the frequency and intensity of denial of equal esteem to women and contests it through the examples in which women have been esteemed, or we can see that women have performed great deeds on a level with great men. The argument is very much that of a Renaissance Humanist, that is someone educated in the languages, history, and literature of antiquity, as great expressions of human spirit and with the assumption that these are the greatest expressions of human spirit. Greatness of literary, intellectual, and statecraft in modern languages, modern thought, and modern states, is possible where  continuing from the classical tradition. Since the emphasis is on pagan classical antiquity, the Humanists to some degree placed humanity above Christian theological tradition, though some Christians were also Humanists and secular Humanist achievements to some degree interacted with scholarship of the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible, along with the Greek and Latin used by church thinkers.

Gourany’s concerns are largely secular but she does deal with the place of women in the Bible. For the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) She points out that if the Queen of Sheba (often thought to refer to an ancient queen of Yemen, or possibly Sudan) visited King Solomon, because she knew of his great wisdom then she too must have had an interest in wisdom, and had some high level of scholarship, learning, and intellectual work herself.

With regard to the New Testament, she comments on St Paul’s injunction in his Epistles that women be silent in church and not take the role of priest. Gournay argues that Paul was not writing out of contempt for women, but fear that men would be distracted and tempted by women speaking out in church serves whereto as part of the congregation or as priests. The limitation on the role of women is not therefore based on beliefs about the supposed inferiority of women, but control of male desire.

On the role of women in the Bible, Gournay argues that in general we should not argue that it supports an inferior role for women, given that God created both men and women in the beginning, and given that men are commanded to leave their parents in order to find a wife. The connection between man and woman, and the idea that a man’s life is completed by association with a woman, is the main message of Christian scripture for Gournay.

Looking at the more secular aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, Gournay deals with philosophical and with historical concerns. On the philosophical side she notes the importance that Plato gives to the priestess Diotima (unknown outside Plato’s writings) in his dialogue The Symposium, which appears to recount conversations about love in a dinner and drinking party in Athens attended by some of the leading people of the time.

Plato shows Socrates presenting the views of Diotima as the correct ones on love, and Socrates, the teacher of Plato, always appears in Plato’s dialogues as a representative of truth. So Gournay points out, it must be conceded that Plato claims that his ideas, and those of Socrates, are in some degree dependent on the thought of women of their time. In that case, Aristotle made himself absurd when  he claimed that women were defective and inferior, since he was the student of Plato and therefore was in some way formed by ideas that Plato said came from Diotima.

Plato’s student Aristotle may have claimed women were inferior by nature to men, but Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates regarded women and men as equal in virtue. Gournay also refers to the tradition according to which Aspasia, female companion of the Athenian democratic leader Pericles (admired by Plato and Aristotle though they did not share his democratic principles) was a scholar and thinker of the time. There is a lack of contemporary sources confirming this view, but this applies to much about the antique world, so Gournay’s suggestions about Aspasia are just as strongly founded as many claims about antiquity, and the investigation of tradition is itself an important part of any kind of intellectual history.

Moving onto Roman historiography, Gournay points out the role take by women in the tribes of Germany and Gaul, according to Tacitus. Women serve as judges of dispute and as battlefield participants inciting male warriors to fight fiercely. So she can point to a revered classic source, which suggests that women had roles in ancient France and Germany denied to them in those countries in early modern times. In general, as she points out, the antiques often referred to a tribe of female warriors, known  as Amazons, which may have some historical origin in Scythian tribes from north of the Black Sea.

Gournay uses her formidable Humanist learning to demonstrate the ways in which equality between men and women had been recognised in the ancient past, on some occasions in some places at least. Showing that women have been recognised as equal to men in some contexts is evidence that the lower status of women in many societies is a result of socially embedded prejudices rather than any difference in abilities. As Gournay notes, rectifying denial of rights to women is part of the basis for real enduring liberty.

When is violence against the state justified?

I am naturally more conservative by disposition. I don’t mean this in the sense of Republicanism, i.e. that I am a foreign interventionist, a drug abolitionist, a rich elitist, etc. Nor do I mean that when I look at the state of American culture, I shake my head, and think back to the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration – which incidentally I know little about and never experienced firsthand. Rather, I have a preference for order over disorder, justice under the law over vigilantism, quiet over tumult, an uneasy peace over an uncertain war, the familiar over the alien. I like gardens and trees and mountains, and I detest large cities. My friend circle is small but intimate. I drink heavily on holidays and moderately thereafter. I prefer the clashes of philosophy and sport to the far more momentous arenas of war and diplomacy. This innate behavioral trait of mine has, in some way, created or informed most of my political positions.

Many of my friends are self-identified as liberal or progressive, and so in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision, I found myself deluged in fashionable white guilt over the “abominable,” “indefensible,” “incomprehensible” verdict. I was greeted to article after article declaring the racist, patriarchal structure of American justice; the oppressive capitalist basis of our condemnation of Ferguson-related looting; the righteousness of looting as an act of protest; the evils of the white race as they have played out over time; and on and on. Based on these factors, so they say, we should not condemn the violence of protestors, but see it for what it is: a legitimate protest of a system that routinely uses violence as a means of coercion. I balked immediately, but then I thought: perhaps there is something more to that charge, than I am giving it credit for?

Violence in this case seems contradictory to me. For the protestors are protesting a senseless act of violence by engaging in seemingly senseless acts of violence. If violence is held to be bad in toto, then any form of violence, even as a form of resistance, is also bad. I suspect many protestors adhere to non-violence in the abstract, but are not prepared to adhere to its most absolute form here. If violence is held to be bad based on whether it has a moral sanction or not – e.g., violence in self-defense is good/acceptable, while murder is bad/unacceptable – then the party which initiated violence is in the wrong, while the party which had violence inflicted upon it and is retaliating, is in the right. I suspect most protestors are in the second category. However, that leads us to the contradiction: the wronged party, Michael Brown, is dead, and so cannot retaliate against the instigator of violence, Darren Wilson – assuming that this is the correct moral equation, and Wilson indeed wronged Brown. The protestors sublimate the injustice perpetrated on Brown from the individual to the collective, asserting that a faceless, nameless, racist, patriarchal, white “system” is actually the perpetrator, while the great mass of black Americans is the victim. Wilson and Brown are only avatars of their respective social groups, which are the real forces in conflict. Because these two groups are in open conflict, and this latest eruption of hostilities is merely a battle in a much longer war, then the metastasizing of hostilities from protest over the police action to looting, arson, and other forms of criminality is justified – because it is against a system that is against them.

But, is this true? I do not think it is time in this enquiry to find out whether the system is as bad as they say. Rather, I would like to explore under what circumstances it becomes legitimate to oppose the system, or the laws that make up that system, by violent means.


I conceive of the legal system, or the laws, in a way similar to Socrates, as he articulated in the Crito: they are the good shepherds of a society, at their ideal, and to violate them is equivalent with disobeying your parents, those who took care of you when you were helpless, and shielded you from the evils lurking in the dark. Once a verdict has been passed under the law, then it is inviolate, and it must be followed to the letter – though one may argue against it, before it has been handed down. This explains Socrates’ mocking dismissal of his trial in the Apology, but his acceptance of the court’s verdict in the Crito, which takes place afterwards in the prison. If we follow Socrates’ example fully, then we may peacefully oppose the reasoning of the laws and their arbitrators, but if we receive a verdict we do not like, then we must respect it regardless. This is because the orderly functioning of a legal system is more valuable than the prevailing of absolute justice in every individual case. If Socrates were to flee from his verdict, he would uphold justice in the absolute, but degrade it in the practical, for he would mock the institutions of the laws and show them to be powerless. Each individual would make himself the arbitrator of justice, and it can be fairly gainsaid, that though some may fulfill this role well – such as Socrates – far more would simply abuse the power of absolute self-determination. Good laws are, to him and to me, a necessary component of social order: without them, the great mass of people would degenerate to the lex talionis.

However, I also conceive of the laws pragmatically, as a tool to further the excellence of a polity, rather than as gods in themselves. When you have a watch, you value the watch only insofar as it can tell time. If it fails in this task, the first thing a prudent watch owner will do is ask: why? If it needs a new battery, it is a simple manner to replace it. If it needs a new winding mechanism, a more complex manner. If the innards are completely shattered, it may be better to chuck it, and procure a new timepiece. So too with the laws: if the system is overall a just enterprise, but may have a few unjust laws scattered amongst the majority of just laws, then it would be foolish to chuck the entire system: better to replace the bad components, rather than the entire apparatus. If many of the laws are unjust, but the system itself may be salvaged, then it is still preferable to work to solve the problems of the system. If the entire system is broken, and it is beyond salvaging, it is at this point better to replace it with a new system.

Thus I come to my own position on the matter*. A state undergirded by just laws, designed to maintain order and peace amongst the members of a polity, is the ideal. Order and peace I define as the state of affairs which, when maintained, allows a polity to about its business without fear of dispossession, intragroup conflict, and so forth. The laws, if they are just and justly upheld, should be maintained and their verdicts followed. If they are just, but unjustly upheld, the laws themselves should be maintained, but the verdicts questioned or protested – the form of these protests should be peaceful, as the state of order under a just system unjustly executed is, more likely than not, preferable to a state of lawlessness. If some laws are just, and some are unjust, the members of the polity should begin to question whether the system that they are governed under is worth maintaining, or whether it should be abolished or replaced. At this point, I think that violent opposition to the laws, or flagrant disregard of them, is not acceptable. Neither is blindly obeying them. The mean, attempting to change the laws through peaceful means, is the best option. However, if the laws uphold a verdict (unjust or not) that is inimical to one’s values, that verdict should be obeyed, because the just rule of law overall is far more important than individual, unjust laws. If they are wholly unjust, they cannot be justly upheld, and all their products are poisoned. At this point, the laws have ceased to serve their purpose as laws, as shepherds of a good society, and so should be opposed actively in their existence and their verdicts, until such a time as a system designed for good and excellence can be created. If peaceful means are ineffective or have been exhausted, violence may be warranted.

To summarize, if the laws fail to serve their proper purpose, viz. being good shepherds of society, then they no longer seek the good of their subjects; and peaceful means of changing or ameliorating these onerous laws have been exhausted, or are unsuccessful, or are impossible; and if the anarchy brought about by disobeying the laws is less bad than the burden of maintaining the laws, then there may be sanction to resist them by violent means. This is a high bar, and I think very few situations merit a violent clash with the laws. A slave revolt would be justified, for example, because the laws exclude slaves from the legal protections afforded to other subjects of the law, means of peaceful resistance are possible but generally ineffectual and unsuccessful, and the anarchy of open revolt is a superior state than the slavery itself.

*If you find amongst my ramblings contradictions, or strange conclusions, let me know: I continue to work out this position at the time of writing.

Now I think I have the means to determine, at least to my satisfaction, whether the system and its laws, as they stand, ought to be opposed by violent means. And thus, whether the violent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere can be justified.

First, indulge me for a brief interlude while I try to summarize the America the Ferguson protestors, or at least their intellectual heavyweights, believe to exist. For them, America is designed to further the interests of white Americans, it was built on the suffering of others, and it continues operating against the interests of other groups, such as black Americans. If you are a white American, or even if you appear white, then you benefit from this system, just as if you are not a white or white-passing American, then you are harmed by this system. The poor cracker jack in the backwaters of Florida, or the slum-dwelling meth head in California’s Central Valley, are despite their various material disadvantages equal beneficiaries of this system with middle- and upper-class whites. For example, they can buy BandAids in their skin tone!

This is called “white privilege,” a symptom of a system that is racist to its core. In this case, racism is defined as this system of power set up for white Americans, so that all whites are racist by virtue of being a part of this system, while all non-whites cannot be racist, by virtue of not being a part of this system. This applies even if the said white does not hold attitudes of prejudice or racial superiority, and the non-white does. For reference, this is the definition of racism as supplied by dictionary.com:

“1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”

The revised definition of racism falls into the second sub-definition provided by dictionary.com, i.e. systemic racism. If you attempt to assert the race-neutral sub-definitions, such as the ideology of racial difference in no. 1, or the hatred of such difference in no. 3, then you will often be angrily told that this isn’t the “real” definition of racism. This is because the dictionary, being a product of the white system, is inherently opposed to non-whites and their lived experience, so everything such weighty tomes hold to be true is tainted and suspect. Most people seem to refer to this system without really articulating what it is, but from what I have gathered, it is the constellation of the police, judiciary, prison system, and business class, which are assumed to be dominated by whites. All of these, or so it goes, conspire together actively and implicitly to maintain hegemony over other races.

What is to be done, assuming this system exists, and that it operates in the ways articulated above? Blacks and other minorities do not have to do anything, except continue their mortal struggle with the great white chimera. Whites, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do:

  1. Acknowledge that you are tainted by your whiteness. It is not enough to feel bad about disparities in educational achievement, wealth generation, crime, or policing between members of your race and minorities in America. Instead, you must acknowledge that this stems from a racist system of which you are a beneficiary, even if the supposed benefits are abstract and cannot be calculated, or do not even apply to you (heresy!). I believe John Derbyshire, formerly of National Review, calls this “ethnomasochism.”
  2. After acknowledging this, make some apologies, preferably to other similarly enlightened whites. Self-flagellation is always a grand spectacle.
  3. Work to erode your privilege. This is the tough one, because if it is indeed true that the system benefits white people in small things such as buying BandAids, but also in large ones, like obtaining jobs and loans, then the natural thing to do is to equalize oneself with people of other races, working to dismantle the system of privilege. You don’t have much control over what colors the BandAid corporation produces its products in, but you can quit your job or default on your loan, since they were obtained immorally.
  4. Produce utopia? All the races will exist happily together in a free and open society, with no group asserting dominance over the other. I assume this is the end result, as the entire foregoing narrative depends on a certain amount of Hegelry to be persuasive.

Now, is such a worldview, and its prescription, correct? I cannot say that it is completely wrong, as it is based on a few observations that are undoubtedly true. Namely, that the brunt of state violence is borne by minority communities, mainly blacks and Latinos; that poor minorities are continually segregated into urban slums, and find it very difficult to leave voluntarily; that the educational systems in these ghettos are atrocious; that discrimination based on appearance, name, sex, and all sorts of categories continues; that because of this, white Americans tend to experience less of racism (or prejudice, depending on your preferred definition of racism) than do minorities; that this is unjust. At this point in time I cannot think of many arguments against the facticity of these points.

I do disagree with why this state of affairs has come into being: it is not the fault of “the white man,” though certain white people have played their part in the tale. I have always found this assertion of collective guilt to be completely befuddling. All white Americans are not responsible for the actions of some white Americans, or white Americans of the past, or the police as a force (which is not all white, anyway), or the actions of the federal government, and so forth. This is just another form of the argument black activists use: that all black people are tarred and feathered as criminals, based on the statistics on black crime. Yes, black Americans as a group engage in more criminal activity than white Americans as a group – if the FBI statistics are to be believed – but the individual black man is not the black group, and so it is unfair to judge an individual based on his racial affiliation, rather than who he is, or what he has done.

Collective guilt is a charge levied on white Americans by certain race peddlers, and on black Americans by others, and it stems from a much broader idea: that the world is not composed of individuals, but faceless social forces. Individuals are not responsible for their own actions, but are induced into doing things by the aegis of some higher power. I would never deny that social forces exist, for there is a certain way that human beings behave when they congregate into groups, which they cannot manifest when alone. However, we must always remember, that a group of people is not blended together into a single entity when they become a group – they are still individual people, always capable of individual action and thought. When thinking about this, I recalled Gandalf’s line in the Fellowship of the Ring: “Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” Whites are meant to have privilege (because the racist patriarchal state was made for them), and other minorities are meant to have none, and there is very little they or anyone else can do about it – save destroying the system, of course.

Based on my own categorization, to Ferguson protestors and their academic stalwarts, this is an unjust system of unjust laws, a fruit of the poisoned tree or so it were, and so must be opposed. Whether peacefully for the idealists, or violently for the rest, both are considered to be valid options, for the system is tainted and must be swept away, to be replaced by something better, a future utopia governed by social justice. I am rather blind to this supposed reality, for I do not see the system of white supremacy that exists, lurking, underneath the supposedly race-neutral laws and institutions. The crusaders for social justice ascribe this self-diagnosed myopia as a symptom of my privilege, for I can choose not to see what, for others, is an omnipresent reality. I ascribe it to the fact, and I believe it is a fact, that this system does not exist. There is not a white supremacist system that exists to crush other races into powder. There is a system, though, that exists to crush us all into powder, if we fall into its orbit: the War on Drugs, as Brandon noted in his post on this subject; the War on Terror, encompassing the surveillance state at the domestic level and the covert war machine at the foreign level; cronyism between government and business; and so forth.

Much of this truly unjust system is an outgrowth not of the system of laws, which I see as just, but of abuses conducted in violation of those laws and legitimized by force, fear, and civic laziness. We have let our system, founded on a just* basis, lapse into what we see today: the restriction of our freedom to peaceably assemble and protest; the restriction of our right to privacy, for the sake of safety against the terrorists and other malcontents our government has fostered abroad; the pillaging of the wealth of future Americans by reckless foreign conflicts against such malcontents and their offshoots; the return of policing methods and equipment developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to our own streets. The list continues on and on, and only grows as our days grow darker.

While the Ferguson protestors may see themselves as protesting against a system of laws that is oppressive, I cannot agree with them. The system of laws that we have, if it were enforced equitably, or at all, would be a flawed but a decent model. The problem is that the law as it is written no longer is the law as it is practiced, and our system, good or bad, is simply powerless. Indeed, we already live in a state of legal anarchy, for while order is maintained in some degree and at some times, it is belied by a concentration of power that is not legitimated by the law, but rather by the supposed enforcers of the law.

Thus, to oppose the system of governmental overreach is to oppose a system that excludes all of us, and in particular certain groups, from its protection. Opposing the police and their excesses, opposing our military-industrial state, opposing the curtailment of our civil and political liberties, is just – for we are now in a state where our laws are in decline, and must be protected from a state that no longer serves to protect and uphold them, or our interests, which they are meant to serve. However, in opposing this governmental apparatus, we cannot fail to uphold the laws that deserve our respect. The looting of private property is in violation of one of our most basic rights, the right to property, and does not harm the system of state terror we are living under, but individual people who are also impacted by that system. The implication that one racial group is behind these evils, and that to target them is to target the system that backs them, is both a silly and perfidious idea. We should not be blind to the realities of race, nor to their effects. But nor should we see race as the prime underlying factor behind the evils plaguing our country, for we are all impacted, in one way or another, by this one system. In conclusion, violence against the state apparatus may be justified, and probably is, while violence against those things which are legitimately protected under the law, such as attacking people in the form of their private property and livelihoods, is not justified. Treatise out.

*Just in the sense that the laws, as written, were largely just, in the sense that they promoted a just society (I think here of the Bill of Rights). There was a large stain on this in the form of slavery’s legitimization under the law, and I concede that this may indicate the system of laws itself was unjust. However, the enduring basis of law in the Constitution, and of our rights under law in the Bill of Rights, is just.

Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne I: de La Boetie (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) was from Sarlat in the southwest of France. He developed strong interests in poetry, classics, and politics as a youth and was rather precocious. It has even been suggested that he wrote his great political essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (also known as ‘One against All’) at the age of sixteen, though there is no universally accepted date for its composition. He started a career as a judge in Bourdeaux at an unusual age, followed up by diplomatic work. He was also a translator of Greek classics and a poet who associated with a distinguished group that included the greatest French Renaissance poet Pierre Ronsard.

De La Boétie died at a sadly young age, but before that he wrote the great political essay under discussion here, and made friends with the Bordeaux judge and author of the Essays, one of the great works of French and European literature, philosophy, and self-examination. I have considered Montaigne as a thinker about liberty and though he did not directly express enthusiasm for liberty-oriented radicalism, he certainly had friends who did, including de La Boétie and an early feminist to be considered in the next post.

It has been claimed that Montaigne wrote ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ himself, which combined with the claim that de La Boétie wrote it at the age of sixteen suggests considerable uncertainty about the status of the text. I will just go with the more average assumptions, which are that de La Boétie was the author and wrote it later than the age of sixteen (or eighteen, as also been suggested).

Anyway, the friendship of Montaigne and de La Boétie was itself a major event in French and European culture, since de La Boétie’s death appears to have played a late part in Montaigne retiring from the judiciary and a melancholia, which led him to begin composing the Essays. One of the most famous essays, ‘On Friendship’, is in part a meditation on the friendship with de La Boétie and the sadness that Montaigne feels that his life is no longer shared with him.

The topic of friendship itself connects with ancient ideas of political liberty, so that the essay itself can be taken as part of the evidence that Montaigne sympathised with ancient republican liberty and wished for its revival. Montaigne’s essay is, as one would expect given Montaigne’s constant shifts in point of view and exploration of difficulties in ideas of some appeal, more open to difficult moments in the idea of friendship, such as the willingness of a friend to cooperate with the other friend’s lawless projects.

De La Boétie’s stye is to develop a thesis with great passion and rhetoric; skill, rather than obviously exploring all sides of a question, though he is certainly best understood with a critical approach to what he might mean and openness to different approaches. Attempts to fit de La Boétie too narrowly into any recent conception of liberty are unlikely to do him justice, as can be seen in the wide range of people who have sought inspiration from more individualistic and more collectivist understandings of both anarchism and republicanism.

‘The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ may be taken as anarchistic in that de La Boétie argues for resisting the authority of any individual or group over a nation, or group of people however defined. It may taken as republican in that de La Boétie uses the language and references of ancient republican tradition in Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, which gives all citizens some role on law-making and government actions through public assemblies. The theoretical work itself reflects on the experience of Ancient Greek city-states and Rome before the Emperor system.

What de La Boétie opposed to the unjust rule of one or a group is law and an idea of liberty, which he defines as natural, and in opposition to the unnatural tendency to those who rule without regard to law. His way of thinking looks connected to that of the tradition going back to Aristotle of ‘natural law’ as those laws shared by all communities and therefore to be seen as belonging to human communities by the nature of humans, or their communities, rather than those laws arising from specific localised customs and necessities. De La Boétie resists an exact account, suggesting he is concerned with the defence of liberty as natural against tyranny, defined as monstrous.

De La Boétie starts the Discourse with reference to Homer, making clear his classical points of reference. The idea comes from Odysseus (de La Boétie uses the`Latinate version of the name, Ulysses) in The Iliad that it is better to have one master than many. De La Boétie takes his starting point then the necessity of condemning one person rule, which must be tyranny whether that individual came to  power through inheritance, election, or usurpation (coup). In that respect, de La Boétie might be taken as an anarchist resisting all authority, as well as a pacifist, since he points to the power of one resisting on the obedience of many who could easily shake of the power of one, without force, if they ignored the claims if the one to sovereign power.

On the whole though, de La Boétie appears to be thinking of the antique republican tradition of sharing power between individuals and councils (and the human value of such participation), so that no one individual or council can have unchecked power. Both the Athenian and Spartan republics are mentioned favourably from this point of view, as is their armed resistance to the invasion of Greece by Persia, itself under the power of one. The ancient Greeks are associated with republican virtues in which liberty is more important than wealth or comfort. It is not so much anarchy, as sharing of political power that de La Boétie recommends, and war is accepted where necessary to resist domestic or foreign tyranny.

There is a justified anarchistic reading of de La Boétie, if we are willing to distinguish that from de La Boétie’s own view. He was an admirer of the sharing of power between citizens in ancient city-states, where there was close to no bureaucracy and administrative functions by modern standards, and what there was could be realistically managed by committees of citizens. This can come close to an anarchistic view of purely voluntary institutions substituting for the state, particularly if we accept a natural law view in which everyone is likely to favour the same basic laws as ‘natural’ or we have some other reason for thinking the same laws will be discerned and accepted as right by the whole body of citizens. I do not recommend such a view, but it is at least worth exploring.

The issue of friendship, which connects de La Boétie with Montaigne, comes into the republicanism of de La Boétie in that friendship is what a tyrant cannot have, while friendship between citizens is what unites them in struggle against tyranny. The tyrant can only have sycophants and enemies, no friends since they must be equals. A society based on friendship between citizens is not based on coercion and the privilege of one, or a few, who control the state. Friendship itself contains the idea of a good that benefits at least two people, so undermining the idea that we can only have a form of power seeking individualism unconcerned with the common good, and that it is possible to live as a human while ignoring common goods and rights.

A Matter of Expectancies

We agree with the opinion that radical social discontent is strongly related to a disappointment of expectancies. The relation emerges from the observation that the most extremist activists are not the most disadvantageous people in society but persons who have a relative wealthy social background and a high level of education. People often believe that radical ideals must be addressed to the poor, because they have “nothing to loose but their chains”, and then get astonished when they find out that most revolutionaries come from the elites. The answer to this puzzle is that political conservatism and radicalism mostly depend on the degree of fulfillment of previous expectancies –or, better, the current expectancy of fulfillment of previous expectancies.

I consider that this contention allows us to translate the Egalitarian claims for a more fair society into the language of the Classical Liberalism. A Classical Liberal view may agree on that every individual deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect, if this means that the most quantity of expectancies are to be fulfilled only when citizens are equal before the law and the restrictions on individual plans are the minimal necessary for them to coexist. This is all the Egalitarianism that Classical Liberalism can provide.

Notwithstanding, there is an enormous advantage of Classical Liberalism on Egalitarianism about this issue: Classical Liberalism judges every individual plan of life only at a very general and abstract degree (do not kill anyone but in self defense; do not coerce liberty of locomotion of anyone, and so on). On the other hand, Egalitarianism needs to qualify the legitimacy of every individual plan of life in accordance to a particular scale of merit on which there is no guaranteed consensus.

But let us suppose that, due to “the veil of ignorance” which we were behind, we might reasonably agree on a particular scale of merit in order to judge the legitimate limits between each personal plan. We reasonably accepted some particular restrictions in our property and liberty in order to proceed to the redistribution of wealth regulated by the system we agreed on when we were “behind the veil of ignorance”. The problem is that we had accepted an Egalitarian system behind the veil of ignorance, but we formed our personal plans and expectancies when later unveiled.

If this is so, we may expect of every Egalitarian system to be unstable. We are in serious trouble when this instability is attributed not to a lack of freedom, but to an absence of regulation –and that is how markets become both accused of being the oppressing iron cage of liberty and the chaos. The other way is to regard each plan of life as intrinsic valuable as far as it does not interfere with basic aspects of other’s. It is true that expectancies are made from perceptions and that sometimes the system works as the tale of the fox and the grapes. But, at least, every individual will be full responsible not of his chance but of what he does with it. That is a right to fight for: not equality, not even prosperity, but the right to be responsible for one’s own days.