Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: Consensus, Obedience, and Dissent - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
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II: Consensus, Obedience, and Dissent - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Consensus, Obedience, and Dissent
As a manifesto of political dissent, the Declaration of Independence voices the “self-evident” truth that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” Arguing from this consensual basis of political obligation, the Declaration draws the radical conclusion that citizens possess the right of rebellion to throw off political obedience. If government loses popular consent: “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” This revolutionary document weaves together the themes of social consensus, voluntary obedience, and dissent—the unifying conceptual threads that run through the following summaries.
The opening and closing summaries of this section distinguish between the voluntary, consensual, harmonious nature of society and the coercive, dissenting, conflictprone nature of the state as an enforced association. This classic antinomy between the voluntary and coercive principles of human interaction—implicit in the Declaration and expressed in Thomas Paine's opposition of “society” and “government” in Common Sense (1776)—appears in many of these summaries.
What constitutes legitimate political authority, on the one hand, and virtuous civil disobedience on the other? Should a valid consensus be determined by majoritarian decisions or should it require universal, unanimous, individual assent? How do we morally deal with dissent in democracy? Can consensus be achieved only by voluntary “society” rather than by “government?” The following summaries offer dissenting perspectives on all these questions.
State and Society
State and Society. Menlo Park, California: Institute for Humane Studies (1978) 27 pp.
Since Aristotle, political thinkers have blurred and confused the distinctions between State and Society. The etymology of society in the Latin word socius (meaning companion) suggests the gulf that separates society as a voluntary association, from the state as an externally enforced association. The institutions of society—family, church, press, school, businesses, unions, and other cooperatives—are characterized by free contract and individual liberty; the state, conversely, creates a status and hierarchical differentiation among individuals by coercion. The contrasts between state and society appear in such paired antitheses as coercive power vs. voluntarism, morality vs. Machiavellianism, love vs. hostility, pluralism vs. conformity, and liberty vs. servitude.
The twentieth century's major political developments flow from the coercive nature of the state: the state has sought to aggrandize its power at the expense of individuals and their voluntary organizations or societies. Increasingly, the state has controlled, disciplined, and subordinated man and society. The American Constitution, through its checks and balances, aimed to curb the growth of state power. Its Ninth and Tenth Amendments, reserving rights and powers “to the people,” marked off the boundaries between the state and society. These constitutional barriers to state growth have become largely dead letters with the emergence of the welfare-warfare nation-state.
The state also poses three inherent dangers for individuals and society because of its amoral quest for power. It tends to monopolize and usurp any rival power. Its ambitions lure it into conflict with other states and entice it to wage war. Its third danger is its tendency to usurp moral authority. Assuming itself to be permanent and immortal, the state lacks conscience and consistently aspires to aggrandize material power. Practicing a “Machiavellian” policy, the state divorces intellectual ability and power from moral considerations. To sustain its survival, the state demands conformity and regulation; it suspects all unregimented thought and suppresses dissent.
The state also stands opposed to the forces of religion and democracy. Religious sentiments such as love and brotherhood are universal and cannot be nationalized; they stand opposed to power, hostility, and parochialism. Similarly, democratic theory values social solidarity among humans as more important than political differentiation and conflict.
In sum, the state subjects persons, whereas society associates them voluntarily. The disciplinary power of social organizations is always limited and not physically punitive. Unlike the state, society's penalties do not effectively constrain individual liberty. In cost-benefit terms, members of society judge that the “income” derived from their voluntary cooperation and association exceeds the “outlay” entailed by such interaction. The state, by forcing men to involuntarily interact, confesses that individuals thereby lose more than they gain.
A number of works have significantly analyzed these contrasts between state and society: Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State; Randolph Bourne, The State; Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State; Edward S. Corwin, Liberty Against Government; Bertrand De Jouvenel, Power; Peter Kropotkin, The State; Albert J. Nock, Our Enemy the State; Franz Oppenheimer, The State; Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society; and Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State.
Consensus and Authority
“The Idea of Authority in the West.” American Historical Review 82 (April 1977): 531–562.
Today the decline and crisis of authority is evident in the West. How can we account for the present tendency either to revolution or totalitarianism as solutions to social problems?
Synthesizing events and ideas from Roman times to the present, our initial conclusion is most important. The historical pattern discloses two persistent ideas of authority: moral authority and authoritative power. Generally, authoritative power usurps moral authority: e.g., the concept of divine right was initially a check on state power exercised by the church, but later was used as a justification by the monarchists.
Unless one understands that authority did not mean the same things to all men, the question would be a historical riddle. If we place things in context, we will then discover that “each creative burst of our culture has been accompanied by the elevation of authorities whose superiority is freely accepted by dint of their rationality and legality, but that our modern idea of authority as a title to domination however exercised is a teleological idea derived from the use of force, the hostility to reason, the superiority to law, and the opposition to liberalization which these authorities have cumulatively appropriated.”
What does the future hold? We can project three probabilities.
Since, historically, social authority has produced authoritarian personalities mirroring the coercive society, we might reverse the process. We can hope that self-integrated and actualized persons might produce a rational social authority that mirrors such persons.
“Civil Disobedience and the Opinion of the Many: Plato's Crito.” The Modern Schoolman 54 (January 1977): 123–136.
Civil disobedience (as the deliberate defiance of an unjust law) has its classic philosophic discussion in Plato's Crito. The dramatic highlight of this dialogue involves a simulated conversation between Socrates and the Laws (Crito 50a6–54d1). The Laws, with apparent success, state the case against Socrates' contemplated disobedience of Athen's laws—the laws that have sentenced the gadfly philosopher to death.
Interpreters have disputed the validity of the Laws' arguments against civil disobedience because such arguments would disallow morally justifiable disobedience to unjust laws. These dissenting interpretations are insightful but require refinement.
The Laws address their speech neither to a philosopher alone (who could detect flaws in the Laws' reasoning) nor to Crito the nonphilosopher, but to Crito the friend of a philosopher and so a potential philosopher. The speech of the Laws functions as an introduction to philosophy for persons like Crito. He is exhorted to use his independent reason rather than succumbing to the uninformed opinion of the many.
The purpose of the dialogue is less to formulate a positive answer to the question of civil disobedience than to introduce the potential civil disobedient (such as Crito) to the rational self-examination of reason and philosophy.
Of course, on rational or philosophic grounds, civil disobedience remains an arguable possibility despite the Laws' circular logic. If Socrates the philosopher follows only the best reasoning, then he is obliged to obey the Laws only insofar as they follow reason.
Philosophy and civil disobedience both share a willingness to destroy those laws that are unreasonable. Thus, it is noteworthy that Socrates, in introducing philosophy, seeks to invoke the potential “civility” and principled restraint of the civil disobedient. In this way philosophy resembles more a lawful civility rather than a disobedience conjured up by the unreflective opinions of the many (whose influence over Crito is so powerful).
The purpose of the Crito, then, is to bring philosophy into the “city,” that is, to introduce philosophy to civilized men. But if it is the philosopher who judges what are reasonable laws, we are left with the disturbing and potentially rebellious question posed by the Laws themselves: “whom would a city satisfy without laws?” (Crito 53a4–5).
Dissent and Virtue
“Political Philosophy and the Right to Rebellion.” Interpretation 5 (1976): 309–315.
Political philosophy asks fundamental, embarrassing, and radical questions about politics, such as the purpose of government. To speculate about the principles justifying government is to raise the possibility of altering or abolishing any government that does not measure up to these principles. Political philosophy can, then, lead to the doctrine of the right to rebellion.
However, both the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Aquinas distinguish between possessing a right and exercising it. A just person, to avoid a greater evil, does not exercise his right. The survival of any right or any freedom rests upon the ability of its possessors to use it well.
One can challenge those who believe that liberty is the supreme political value with the question: “Can political institutions predicated upon equality in certain unalienable rights survive if they and the liberty they provide are not used for the cultivation of human excellence, which is the ultimate justification of any good government?” This question presents two challenges:
In sum, are there certain institutional and personal developments necessary to maintain liberty itself?
Underdevelopment vs. Consensus
“Underdevelopment and Political Rights: A Revisionist Challenge.” Government and Opposition 21 (Summer 1977): 276–292.
Do less developed countries need authoritarian regimes?
No. A dissenting criticism attacks the growing body of literature that attempts to explain and justify the drift toward authoritarianism. Too many have uncritically accepted the rationale for the emergence of single-party regimes headed by charismatic leaders.
Three major themes arise from such “apologist” literature. First, some argue that opposition parties endanger national unity in heterogenous, underdeveloped states. But unity cannot be artificially imposed by a single party government. Giving each element in the population a share of power would probably have a more stabilizing effect than would authoritarian rule.
Secondly, others argue that single party states can achieve adequate representation in the interim for all elements in the population; such states may actually serve as training grounds to prepare the country for democracy at some future time. The counterargument to this is that a political system cannot remain essentially democratic on an intraparty basis. The party will eventually lose its internal pluralism (and democracy) as it moves to silence the opposition and degenerates into an organization run from the top. Single parties, moreover, are not equipped to serve as a democratic device for dissent among elites or as a useful channel of expression for the masses. Nor does such a state show much prospect for evolving into a more democratic system in the future under the “tutelary” guidance of elites.
To summarize the “revisionist” challenge to tutelary democracy, we suggest that conflict should not be a reason for delaying democracy; it should serve as a reason to accept opposition and dissent so that the short-term gains of suppression can give way to the long-term formative effects of democracy.
Thirdly, the “apologists” for single party regimes tend to adopt an elitist or “Hamiltonian view” of society: the common folk in these essentially peasant societies are too immature to participate in government and elections. This “guided democracy” concept is condescending and paternal, assuming that people are not ready to make their own decisions. However, considerable field evidence shows that peasants have a very good instinct for what should be done and how democracy can work for them.
The UN could play a more determined role in defining political rights in specific, meaningful terms. It could then work for the enforcement of political rights in less developed countries—at least to the extent of conducting investigations, hearing reports of violations, and making recommendations for remedies. This approach narrowly defines political rights as simply the right to participate in government.
Democracy vs. Elitism
“The Contradictions of Hannah Arendt's Political Thought.” Political Theory 6 (February 1978): 5–26.
Hannah Arendt's political thought is riven by a deep, insoluble, and profound contradiction. On the one hand, she is a great admirer of the political ideal of ancient Athens, participatory democracy; on the other hand, she betrays an elitist streak of almost Nietzschean proportions.
Thus, within her thought one can sense a contempt for the growth of “mass society” as the progenitor of totalitarianism, coupled paradoxically with a utopian vision of self-federating councils. These popular councils would seem to depend upon the political activism of precisely the class which she condemns. Hence, two conspicuous contradictions mar Arendt's thought: (1) her oscillations between democratic and elitist attitudes, and (2) an uncertainty about the relation between her political thought and practice (i.e., how is her utopian dream to be realized, or is it actually meant to be effected?).
This unresolved tension in Arendt's thought has led to some rather jarring ironies in her works. For example, she condemns the Marxians and Nazis for their materialistic explanations of history. But in The Human Condition she argues that man is conditioned by his labor. Also, under the exigencies of the modern world, resulting from technological changes, the working class has prospered. Technological changes which have isolated man and fostered “uprootedness and superfluousness” have also nurtured the loneliness that makes support for totalitarian movements possible. Arendt's inconsistency is apparent, however, when this contempt for the laboring class is contrasted with her repeated emphasis upon the capacity of men to act freely and decisively, and, most obviously, when contrasted with her admiration for the heroism of the working class in the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
For Arendt the ideal resolution of the totalitarian potentialities of mass society seems to be a decentralized model of spontaneously generated workers' councils or neighborhood councils. Political freedom can only be meaningful if it includes the idea of political participation. Action and freedom, then, are indissoluble. The council system represents a partial resolution of the two elements in Arendt's thought: everyone can participate, but in actuality the elite will exercise predominant authority.
It is important to illuminate the paradoxical strain in Arendt's thought between her loathing of totalitarianism and her quest for freedom as the political activity of a political elite.
“Majority Tyranny and the Extended Republic Theory of James Madison.” Modern Age 20 (Winter 1976): 40–53.
In the Federalist 10, Madison argued that an extended republic can control the effects of majority factions without violating basic republican principles. Madison believed that little can or should be done to eliminate factions, because they will always be with us. He placed little reliance on appeals to a higher morality or religion in staying the hand of a majority faction. By the same token, he had little faith that written constitutional limitations can block factions.
Madisonian theory presupposes relatively passive government. The theory's main supports are essentially the following: (1) multiplicity and diversity of interests to reduce the possibility of a union of interests through common motives; (2) an independent force, free of the interest bias, that is more likely to reflect the accepted norms of the community in its decision making; (3) representation that will temper deliberations.
Of these, only the first—multiplicity and diversity of interests—is sound.
Since the New Deal, a dramatic shift in our thinking about the legitimate role of government has rendered inoperative Madison's view of the role of government. Equally important in disintegrating the independent forces produced by positive government is “secular liberalism,” which has justified and propelled positive government.
This ideology is poles apart from Madison's theoretical presumptions which were plainly not relativist. Secular liberalism's attachments to pure democracy promise to reduce even further the possibilities of Madison's independent force.
“On Frustration of the Majority by Fulfillment of the Majority's Will.” Analysis 36 (June 1976): 161–168.
Is democracy nonsensical and unfair in its quest for majority decision making? Paradoxically, majority voting may allow the majority to get what they do not want in most cases.
Where matters are decided, yes or no, by a majority vote, the decision on each matter is the will of the majority. But it is also possible that the majority of individual voters may find themselves voting in the minority, and thus defeated, on a majority of political issues. This may be graphically shown by a table in which there are eleven voters voting on eleven questions; seven of them vote in the losing minority in a majority of the decisions.
The argument for the superiority of deciding according to the majority's will is not evident. The rationale for majority voting is that it seems best and fairest. In effect, it seems fair that where all cannot have their way, the greater number should not be frustrated. But this rationale is weakened when we realize that though the majority may be satisfied on every issue, it may nevertheless be frustrated over a majority of issues. Also a majority by its own subsequent admission, may vote foolishly.
Majority decision also involves a questionable assumption: that a decision has to be made for people collectively, or that some should decide what everybody does on any issue. But why not let each individual choose his own activity?
Finally, certain techniques of tyranny are possible even though every voted measure wins the support and desire of a majority. Thus separate measures may hurt only a minority, but in aggregate these measures may violate the will of a majority of citizens. Such tyranny will be able to claim “democratic support” for its measures, though the majority of the population are made worse off by the measures carried out.
Consensus vs. Politics
“The Limits of Consensual Decision.” American Political Science Review 64 (December 1975): 1270–1298.
Presently, in the social sciences, the concept of unanimity provides our only method of determining the “best” state of affairs other than subjectively declaring that we know what's best for other people.
The idea that government decisions should reflect some approximate consensus—unanimous agreement as a condition to action—has deep intuitive and analytic roots in liberal thought. Unanimity or consensus appears in the myth of the social contract, in the doctrine of consent, in the structure of markets, and in the utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number (which survives economic theory under the title of efficiency).
It is everywhere understood that consensus has serious practical limits, but these hardly disqualify it from service as a normative criterion to be approximated in experience. Yet we should not say merely that consensus cannot be duplicated in practice, we should say that it should not be approximated in practice.
Consensual decision displays structural defects. For any society requiring politics, these defects spoil its normative promise. Within the context of a political society neither consensual decision nor any other device can conceivably grant an unconditional right of consent to persons. Thus, some outcome to any political decision must portend a violation of consent. The new political economy—Knut Wicksell or James Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock in The Calculus of Consent, 1962—is wrong in claiming that consensual decision leads toward social efficiency. They would be right only for a society requiring no politics.
Thus we reach a key, but disturbing, conclusion: “Consensual decision will cash its guarantee—assure utilitarian efficiency—precisely where politics itself seems unnecessary—i.e., in a perfect private sector. This last, however improbable, would make politics a risky luxury: If no harm can befall me under static policy, yet losses can be inflicted by governmental action, why should I not choose to end political history?”
Consensus and Rights
“Locke on ‘Voluntary Agreement’ and Political Power.” Western Political Quarterly 29 (March 1976): 136–145.
At its best, Locke's theory of will allows us to reasonably interpret his claim that “voluntary agreement...gives political power to governors for the benefit of their subjects”—a claim that is a vital component of his concept of right.
In his political writings, John Locke sought an equilibrium between consent, natural law, and natural rights. In Lockean politics, voluntary consent and contract set up an impartial and standing judge to enforce natural law and safeguard the natural rights flowing from natural law.
Locke's system, however, is open to numerous interpretations. For example, if it is “voluntary agreement” that bestows political power on governors for the benefit of their subjects, “does Locke in fact provide an adequate concept of will and of “voluntary agreement” as one foundation of what is right?”
To answer this question we can consult Book II, Chapter 21 of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It is argued that the coherence of the voluntarist strand of Locke's political thought is important. This voluntarism leads “to Locke's claim that men are free of political obligation” until they are put under such political order as they willingly and of choice consent to.
Locke's notion of “voluntariness” involves more than the psychological facts of restless desire. Voluntariness refers to a kind of moral causality that produces political power “by right,” thereby producing political obligations as distinguished from natural obligations. Will must be creative of (political) right. As Locke says in his Essay, political laws and rights depend “upon men's wills, or agreement in society,” and are therefore “instituted, or voluntary and may be distinguished from the natural.”
Consensus vs. Majority Rule
“On Locke's Argument for Government.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 (1977): 195–203.
In his Second Treatise of Government (1690), John Locke seeks to justify the existence of civil government and ignores the possibilities for social organization without government. Locke claims that certain “inconveniences” of a State of Nature can find their remedy only in a state-governed society. Locke's arguments are not persuasive. Autonomy, freedom, and political justice (as they exist in a State of Nature or stateless society) are in fact violated by the injustice, coercion, and vagaries of majoritarianism that characterize civil government.
For Locke, the State of Nature is the condition of complete individual freedom and autonomy:
a State of perfect Freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other Man (II,4).
Reason and the avoidance of initiating coercion define the meaning of the “Law of Nature.” Such an idyllic stateless society suffers, in Locke's judgment, however, from three failings: (1) the lack of an established and known law, (2) the lack of an impartial and known judge, and (3) the lack of power to execute sentences on wrongdoers. These three inconveniences of the State of Nature, supposedly remedied by government, center around the possibility of Hobbes's war of “all against all,” that is, the implausibility of lasting peaceful coexistence among stateless individuals.
Fearing that a State of Nature may allow men to use force without right (this initiation of coercion may be termed a violation of the Rule of Political Justice), Lockean political organization seeks to compensate for these “inconveniences” by three powers of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive.
People in a State of Nature might dissent, judging that the governmental cure is more harmful and unjust than other stateless alternatives. They could first question pragmatically whether political organization is the most efficient means to achieve the goal of an orderly society. Secondly, they could also raise the moral question of justice and argue that government might intrinsically involve unjustified coercion. This would entail a violation of the Law of Nature and its standard, the Rule of Political Justice.
Even if Locke's political organization originally arose through popular consent, it inevitably threatens coercion against dissenters because of its principle of majoritarian decision making. Since governmental acts cannot elicit unanimous consensus, the state allows majority rule to coerce minority dissenters to act against their own judgment and interests. By contrast, the State of Nature could allow competitive private legal, judicial, and defense systems to offer their services noncoercively and avoid any alleged inconveniences from lawless force.
Majority rule involves other problems for states. Majorities can lose their own power through delegating it to usurping governmental elites who then define what the law means to their own advantage.
Prudence suggests that people in a State of Nature would desire a flexible and revocable stateless system rather than lock themselves into an irrevocable government. They might well prefer an “easily discontinued arrangement for private law making and law enforcement” rather than the unpredictable consequences of governmental majority rule and its possible abuses of the Rule of Political Justice.