April 21, 2003

Light in the Darkness

A while ago, I wrote the first of what was intended to be a series of posts, discussing in some detail the intellectual and political foundations of the West, which came out of the Enlightenment, and the enemies of the West as an idea (as opposed to being enemies of specific Western nations). It was really badly written (which is why there's no link here), and I didn't write any of the followon posts, because the war intervened and I was too caught up in current events. I went back and looked at the original post, and realized that rather than making the argument myself, I should let those more eloquent than myself make it.

As a consequence, I have created this category, Light in the Darkness, to track articles on the web, and discussions of paper sources as well, that address these fundamental themes:


  • Natural vs. civil rights
  • Citizens vs. subjects
  • Limited constitutional governance vs. elitism
  • Free markets, free trade and property rights
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Republic vs. democracy
  • Federalism vs. national governance

Below, I summarize each of these points.

The original concept of rights was they accrued to a sovereign power, chosen by God, and disseminated downwards to the aristocrats (and bishops) in exchange for service to the king (or pope). There was no concept of individual people having rights. The Enlightenment introduced the concept of natural rights; that is, that rights are given by God to the people individually, and through an act of will on the part of the people, certain of those rights would be vested upwards into governments, for the betterment of all. (Just read the American Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution for a summary of what this means.) Later collectivist movements, particularly fascism and communism, spoke instead of civil rights; that is, rights granted by the already-sovereign to the individuals, as an act of beneficence or convenience.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the concept of Citizenship was basically non-existent, because citizens can only exist where individual sovereignty exists. As far as I can tell, the only place where this concept existed in any widespread form prior to the Enlightenment was in the Roman Republic, whence actually comes the word "citizen." Instead, individuals were subjects of a particular sovereign. Political power was limited to a select group of aristocrats, and the individuals were effectively coerced into service of the elite. The Enlightenment reintroduced the Roman concept of citizenship, wherein each person meeting certain criteria (generally chosen so as to ensure that those people would have a natural inclination to act for the good of society at large) held political power of their own, and only by convincing a large number of citizens to support him could a person wield official power over others, and this power would continue only so long as the officer was supported by the citizens, who held the ultimate power to remove an officer.

In an anarchy, it is inevitable that a few people will, generally through sheer brutality, gain the power to control others. As these people fight amongst themselves for power, more and more authority becomes invested in fewer and fewer people. Eventually, a national autocracy of some sort arises, generally to the detriment of the individuals who are not aristocrats to that autocrat, which is to say, it is a detriment to almost everyone. Paradoxically, the more individual rights are granted, the closer to the edge of anarchy (and thus to the risk of tyranny) the society comes. A slight instability can cause a free people to descend into anarchy. The Enlightenment's cure for this has proven to be the only enduring way yet found to keep free people free: limit the power of the government to act, so that it can only act in very limited ways and in very limited circumstances, primarily so as to avoid civil strife and protect against foreign control. This ensures that the instabilities that would topple free and peaceful societies into anarchy are controlled, while not giving the government the ability to take away the natural rights of the citizens. Becaues the powers of the government are strictly defined in a written document, the government cannot simply accrue power to itself. It must instead convince the citizens to yield power to it.

In contrast, every other form of government either magnifies instabilities (pure democracy) or results in some form of elitest control. Monarchy, aristocracy, and so forth are just political labels for an elite few, who deem themselves to have the right to decide everything for everyone else, because, well, they're just better than you and I are. As Robert Heinlein put it:

Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.

Free markets allow people to make choices for their own betterment; free trade expands those choices; property rights allows the wealth accumulated by commerce to be stored and passed on. They inherently erode central control of daily life, because they make that control irrelevant. Any time someone is trying to "protect" you by limiting your rights to buy and sell, to anyone anywhere, or to use your property as you see fit, they are trying to control you.

With all of the focus of the Enlightenment on individuals, prior forms of elitism became very much marginalized in the West. This left the elites scrambling around for a way to have influence above their due, and they found it in ideologies like fascism and communism. World War II destroyed fascism as a reputable label, and the Cold War destroyed communism similarly. This search continues, though, into the present, as witness the arguments made by Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, which basically came down to, "I know what's good for you, and you don't." For that matter, witness France's behavior on anything these days. The current drive to transfer control to the elites goes by many names with one face: transnational progressivism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, and so on. These are all, in the end, ways to devalue the individual and even whole cultures and nations, and chain them in the service of a self-selected elite.

A democracy, in its pure form, is governance by vote and poll. Thomas Jefferson and others have referred to democracy as "the tyranny of the masses." Democracy sounds great on its face, but it has two problems. First, it is unstable, and descends rapidly into anarchy if sufficient stress is applied to the society; "mob rule" is just democracy in the process of descent into anarchy. Second, it actually minimizes the power of the voter, since any opinion not capable of getting a majority is not protected. The more democratic a society, therefore, the more that elections become horse races, and minorities are persecuted rather than protected. In contrast, a republic limits who can vote, generally in ways designed to ensure that the voter's natural self-interested choices coincide with what is necessary to keep society functioning and healthy over the long term, without governmental interference in individual matters. This effectively aggregates the vote, maximizing the chances of one vote changing the power structure, and thus protecting minority viewpoints.

This tendency is magnified if those powers given to the government by the people are in fact spread in layers, so that one layer of government controls street maintenance, while another controls the militia and police for local stability, while still another controls the armed forces for protection from foreign aggressors. When all power congregates in one level of government, the stakes become so high that votes are traded in the legislature so that everyone gets their pet projects through. Over time, this tends to lead to a corruption, in that power accumulates, money accumulates and the common voter is less able to influence the officer. If I go to the city council meeting, there are only a few dozen people there, and I am heard. If I go to the state legislature, there are thousands of people clamoring from a hearing, and I am dimly heard, if at all. If I go to the Congress, I am part of the background din of millions of petitioners, and am not going to get heard at all.

These, then, are the issues that this category will address, through the writings of others.

Posted by Jeff at April 21, 2003 10:20 AM | Link Cosmos
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