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One of the great misconceptions of our time is the equation of
government with the state. When we hear “government,” we immediately
think of Washington, D.C., Lansing, Albany, or Sacramento. This
deviates widely from the pre-modern notion of the state as one
government among many.

The identification of the state alone as government does have
hoary precedent. For Plato and other ancient Greeks, man found his
reason for existence only in civil society, i.e., the state.
Plato was a theoretical totalist — the state is designed to govern all
areas of life. There was to be one government in men’s lives — the
state.

Christianity destroyed this basic statist unity. While prohibiting
revolution, it equally prohibited granting Caesar what belonged to God.
It shattered the statist totalism of the ancient world. In the medieval
world, as Christopher Dawson has shown, the church was often more
powerful than any particular state in Europe. Both church and state
were formally Christian, and, while far from perfect, each tended to
hold the authority of the other in check. This led Lord Acton to observe
that civil liberty arose (unintentionally) from the medieval conflict
between the claims of the Christian church and those of the Christian
state. This was the first social system of checks and balances since the
ancient Hebrew commonwealth.

But church government is only one form of government that
counterbalances state government. There is also, for example, family
government, vocational government, school government and, most basic of
all, self-government. Until the modern age, family, village, church,
monastery, school, guild and other “private” voluntary associations each
constituted a government in society, with its own rules of identity,
operation and exclusion. An individual was a member of several
different governments simultaneously. Men had no irrevocable allegiance
to any single human institution. This put a decisive check on the
tyranny any single government might impose on him. Ideally, these
governments were independent of, but cooperative with, each other.

The French Revolution changed all that. We usually think of the
French Revolution as the specific historical precedent of today’s
political liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism, with roots in
the Puritan commonwealth). This conviction has much to commend it. Its
watchwords were “liberty, fraternity, equality.” This was, in reality,
a myth. The French Revolution did not produce liberty, but rather
created a tyranny even greater than that of Louis XIV. It did not
engender fraternity, but rather destroyed the various social communities
(governments) that existed previous to the Revolution and made each
individual nakedly responsible to the state. It did not create
equality; it erected a new statist caste system enforced by the
guillotine’s reign of terror.

Political liberalism, a revival of Plato’s statist totalism, has
always operated under the banner of “individual freedom” — freedom from
parental, ecclesiastical, vocational, and other traditional authority.
It is held out as a temptation — the golden apple of toleration for all
beliefs and practices. This is a monstrously hypocritical claim.
Liberalism does not substitute liberty for tyranny or tolerance for
intolerance. It substitutes the tyranny of the state for responsibility
to a community and the intolerance of the state for the tolerance
created by multiple governments.

Political liberalism works relentlessly to smash all of man’s
competing governments, authorities and allegiances — the family,
church, vocation, friendship, and so forth. The true appeal of
political liberalism is, “We will free you from any responsibility to
any other governments and allegiances, as long as you recognize the
absolute government of, and give your absolute allegiance to, the
state.” Thus, the same liberals who recoil in horror at the authority
of the church to excommunicate sinful members, enthusiastically support
the authority of the state to execute traitors. The same liberals who
mount public protests over families or churches that expel immoralists
and abortionists, experience no such compunctions when the state
incarcerates parents who refuse to send their children to state-
(i.e., tax-) financed schools. The same liberals who cheer on
the federal government for indicting and punishing businesses like
Microsoft that amass great wealth in the private sector express no
similar concern at the amassing of great wealth by the federal
government itself — wealth amassed coercively by means of taxation –
and at gunpoint if necessary. (It is not, you see, “monopolies” that
political liberals oppose, just alleged free-enterprise
monopolies, though monopolies in a free economy are virtually
impossible.)

Political liberalism, therefore, does not really endorse liberty and
tolerance, only liberty and tolerance for an intellectual elite wielding
power by means of a coercive state. It is tolerant toward abortionists,
power-hungry federal agencies and European communists. It is not
tolerant toward institutions like the family, church, and business that
may be intolerant of certain of these individuals. None of these
independent but cooperative authorities — family, church, business, and
other “private” communities — possesses the power of coercion. One
agrees to abide by the rules of the community, and if he does not, he is
shown the door. The state, however, wields a greater power; it can kill
you if you don’t comply. Modern political liberalism substitutes the
potentially lethal comprehensive coercion of the state for the actually
limited contractual coercion of other governments.

The goal of liberty-loving individuals everywhere should be the
reinstitution of multiple governments. Strong individuals, families,
businesses and churches impose a check on the authority of a coercive
state. They are all — or should be — peaceful governments. Unlike
the state, their power of coercion is only contractual. They can expel
people; they cannot kill them or throw them into prison.

The tyranny of state government will recede when the authority of
self-, family, church, and business governments resumes its earlier
role.

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