This essay is the second installment in a three-part symposium on sovereignty. The first contribution was made by Thomas E. Woods Jr..
Every time I read an anarchist essay like Tom Woods’s piece on sovereignty, in which he implicitly calls for the abolition of the State, it fills me with a warm, nostalgic glow. Some 25 years ago, I was active in a group called the Party of the Right. To this day, that student-led organization of conservative inactivists still fights the Left at Yale—through bow-tied Oxford-style debates held over port and sherry on topics like “Resolved: That the Beautiful is Closer to the Good than to the True.” When last I visited, not much had changed, except that you can no longer smoke cigars, and now the group attracts a fair share of date-able women. Something to do with 9/11, I’m told. (“If you don’t kiss a conservative, then the terrorists will have won.”)
It used to be that the sharpest divide in the group was between fish-eating, guilt-haunted Catholic traditionalists like me, and the Loompanics-reading, coke-snorting libertarians like… well, most of my closest friends. (Face facts: They were a lot more fun than the Opus Darien stiffs I’d met through Students for Life.)
The lines were clearly drawn between the Libertarians and the Trads, and debates centered on how large a part (if any) the State had to play in promoting the Good. The worst fate folks on our side could imagine was that the conservative movement might be taken over by those Ayn Ranters, and turned into a movement concerned merely with small government, low taxes, and non-intervention.
For their part, the Libertarians feared that we Moral Majority types would outlaw abortion, relegate porn mags to special stores on back roads in bad neighborhoods, impose draconian laws on divorce, and restore Bible-reading at public schools.
None of us, in our worst panic attacks, ever dreamed how much worse things would actually turn out. That both our factions would soon be shoved aside or bought. That within a decade the conservative movement would be captured, controlled, and re-educated by a third force altogether: A movement that promoted irreligious moralism, a Cold War stubbornly waged despite the absence of Communism, and big government for the sake of “National Greatness.” Had you laid out John McCain’s platform for me in 1984, I probably would have said, loudly, in the dining hall: “That sounds… fascist. In the negative sense.”
So Woods’s learned piece brings me back to the old days. And in arguing for the anarchist position, he looks for evidence that the State is inherently abusive, finding in the trash bin of the 20th century (and then of the Bush years) an embarrassment of riches. Of course, that’s a little like using footage from a San Francisco bathhouse to argue for universal celibacy…. As we pro-lifers learned long ago, the sight of something can turn your stomach, but it might not change your mind—especially if you know you’re only getting part of the picture.
And part of the picture is all you really see in Woods’ analysis. He attributes the notion of sovereignty to an early modern advocate of royal absolutism. And perhaps he’s right about the term. But I doubt that a Roman emperor would have had much trouble articulating his claim to arbitrary power without Jean Bodin’s neologism. (Indeed, the thinkers who advocated quasi-divine powers for kings looked to Roman law, which they wielded to liquidate feudal customs and Common Law—Teutonic holdovers which are the origin of our liberties.) The reality that rulers will seek to liquidate every obstacle to their “liberty” of action is a perennial observation. You can find it in the Old Testament and in the writings of Roman republicans. That’s where our Founding Fathers found it.
To note this fact, and deplore it, and favor institutions that would counteract it by establishing rival centers of power within the state, and thriving institutions of civil society and Church that serve as the main guarantors of order—all this is the heritage of Anglo-American conservatism. And Ron Paul, in everything he said out loud in his presidential run, stands firmly in this tradition. I’ve written here before on how I believe this position is today, here and now in our political context, the only option for Christians.
The public sector in America is so deeply infused with liberal secularism that it cannot be used to further Christian (or even conservative) ends—apart from defending basic rights and keeping order. Beyond that, whatever short-term success you achieve, the deep structure of our institutions and the legal ideology that governs the courts will turn the knife against you. Gain public funding for your parochial schools—and you’ll end up having to follow state directives about whom to hire and fire. Partner with the government in running an adoption agency… and wait to see the kind of “families” where the courts make you place those innocent children. And so on.
Whatever a fruitful cooperation of Church and state might have accomplished in 19th century Bavaria, or 1940s Portugal, it can’t happen here. It’s time to scrape the needle on the Trad’s favorite LP, “Don’t… Stop… Thinking About the Carlists...” and get with the program: Rendering a whole lot less unto Caesar, so we can save up something for God. We’ve tried for some 25 years (Jerry Falwell’s debut makes a handy starting point) to make God into our Caesar. By the time John Hagee declared the First Protestant Crusade on behalf of restoring Solomon’s kingdom, the truth became apparent: We’ve taken Caesar for our God.
Admitting all this should make anyone sympathetic to Lord Acton‘s classical liberalism, and the decentralist aspirations of Chesterton—embodied so well in the localist institutions that still keep Switzerland free. It should move us to root for regionalists in Flanders, and support a state’s rights approach to changing abortion laws. We ought to take with great seriousness the doctrine at the heart of Catholic social teaching called subsidiarity, which asserts that it is a sin to centralize power unless it is absolutely necessary. While I wouldn’t try telling this to the mitred Democratic party hacks who issue bishops’ pastorals, this is the real political tradition of the Church, with its roots in the decentralized order of the Middle Ages, where kings’ aspirations were checked by the rights of free cities and regions, and the moral force of the Church.
We can follow Tom Woods thus far—but not much further. We can reject the “monism” of early modern absolutists, and insist on viewing with great suspicion every attempt to centralize power in the hands of technocrats. But that doesn’t bring us anywhere near his comprehensive rejection of the State, which is not libertarian but simply anarchist. And it’s deeply misleading for him to suggest that the Medieval order provides a precedent proving that his anarchist project is workable. In Medieval France, there certainly was overlapping sovereignty, a happy confusion of powers between local lords and a distant king, the rights of guilds and the dictates of bishop and pope. And this tension left a great deal of space for civic liberty.
You know what didn’t exist? A Rothbardian anarchist collective where no one institution claimed a monopoly of force, where contracts were only enforced by voluntary arbitration, and rights were protected by private enforcement agencies. When a village enforced its laws using the powers of police, it was seen as representing the face of public order—wielding the “temporal sword” of the State, acting as Caesar, whom Christians must obey except when he commanded them to sin. A medieval townsman who violated the draconian laws of the local guild would find himself under arrest. When the Church declared someone a heretic, it turned him over “to the temporal arm” for punishment. (Thankfully, the Church renounced this use of State power to prosecute religious dissidents at Vatican II. Better late than never.)
In fact, it is impossible to imagine a successful society that would not insist on a public monopoly of deadly force—however wisely decentralized, and kept in check by an armed citizenry keenly aware of its right to revolt against a tyrant.
Let’s jump forward a few centuries, and imagine that the citizens of a “Paulville,” populated by lovers of liberty, somehow convinced the U.S. government to let their city secede. And within this free community, the most consistent anarchists have prevailed, and the local government has dissolved itself. Instead of paying modest taxes for the enforcement of minimal laws that protected the maximum individual liberty consistent with public order, the residents subscribed to one of a competing group of private enforcement agencies. (Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I imagine these “protection” companies bearing names like “Bonanno” “Lucchese” and “Gambino.”) So far so good.
What happens, I wonder, when Bubba Rodriguez complains that Fallopia O’Reilly, who lives down the road, is dumping the waste from her pig farm in the stream where he likes to fish? He calls his protection agency, the Bonannos—who contact Fallopia’s agency, the Gambinos. They try to work things out. What happens if they can’t? If there’s a great deal of money involved, or if passions become inflamed…. Is there some third party that can enforce on them an agreement? If so, what power does it use to make them settle? If the argument descends into a feud, does someone step in and use force to stop the fighting and impose on the parties a compromise? If that happens, the third force which has stopped the fighting has acted as a STATE, and the state it has imposed is what we call ORDER, according (we hope) to principles known as LAW. In subjecting the Bonnanos and Gambinos to its superior force, it is exercising SOVEREIGNTY.
Of course this need not happen. For several hundred years, in large swathes of Europe, there was no center of power sufficient to impose law and order on the private feudal enforcement agencies based on hilltops in crenellated castles. Outside of a few small cities, the writ of baron and duke ran without limit—except when a neighboring militia managed to muster more swords and shields. There was, we can say with certainty, no State. There was also, outside of the castle, no guarantee for individual rights. Nor freedom of trade, freedom of movement, or prospect of lasting peace. That may be why the period got the pesky nickname, the Dark Ages.
The High Middle Ages—which saw the explosion of prosperity, the building of the great cathedrals, the founding by the Church of Europe’s universities from Salamanca to the Sorbonne—also saw the rise of kings, and the growth of some central authority that could restrain the excessive powers of local tyrants. Indeed, the common people commonly looked to the king for protection against feudal lords who flouted their rights. At some point, in various places, a healthy balance was achieved between the centralizers and the regionalists. We look to such golden moments when we invoke the Magna Carta, the establishment of fueros in Spain, the chartering of free Imperial Cities throughout Germany and Italy. When the tension collapsed, and moved too far in one direction or other, we see periods of chaos or tyranny. The Polish kingdom, too crippled by the veto which a single noble could impose on any law, was gradually gobbled up by its neighbors—while the French kingdom after Louis XIII was turned into a tyranny. As conservatives, who know that Original Sin afflicts both citizen and sovereign, we warn against either extreme.
Put in more concrete, domestic terms: We know how dangerous it is to have social service agencies that interfere in the legitimate exercise of parental rights, that try to ban homeschooling and impose sex education on near-toddlers. But when we have proof that a neighbor is beating or molesting one of his kids, we want there to be someone we can call, someone in a uniform who will bring a gun and take that guy away in shackles. Someone whose use of violence is limited by a very specific code, who will convey that abusive parent to a fair trial based on evidence, and that child to a safe haven. That guy in the uniform is the representative of the State. The power he wields was delegated by the citizens—but it flows from the justice of God. I don’t think we can do without him. Those of you who think we can should find some depopulated region of Africa or Ukraine and give it a try. Report back to me once you’re done with your seventh civil war—and you’ve installed some Grand Panjandrum to please (please, please!) impose a monopoly of force. You’ll have learned that old, sad lesson: Even tyranny is better than chaos.
Dr. John Zmirak is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, and author of several books, including Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, and most recently The Grand Inquisitor.
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