The Debate That Changed the West: Grotius versus Althusius, by Ruben Alvarado
Alvarado begins by examining the work of Althusius, specifically Politica Methodice Digesta or “Politics Methodically Defined.” In this work, Althusius does not focus on the ruler, instead focusing on the myriad other actors and structures in society:
And the primary focus was on restraint of power, not power itself.
As I have commented elsewhere, it seems to me that Althusius attempted to mimic the governance structures of medieval Europe and Christendom without the benefit of a universal Church that could stand against the king; a tall order, no doubt. Alvarado puts it this way:
As such, the Politica is a Calvinistic meditation on the constitution of Christendom, a proposal for the way that constitution should be interpreted and implemented.
As in medieval Christendom, Althusius looks for a balance of the individual within a context of society as a whole – with God above it all; in other words, an individual, but not completely autonomous in the way that the individual has been defined since the Renaissance / Enlightenment.
I have examined Althusius’s work in some detail before, so here I will summarize: Althusius builds from the family up, with all subsequent relations made on a voluntary basis, to include the freedom to secede from a previously agreed-upon union if one so desires.
These associations were meant to assure symbiosis: a shared life. Althusius takes these associations as a given – no need to explore the nature and beginnings of institutions such as family, extended family, and collegium (or guild). Men have in the past so associated and will in the future do the same.
In Aristotelian fashion, they are taken as given: “We discover no trace of a constructed state of nature in Althusius. He is cognizant only of real positive human communities, symbioses, with their own, characteristic laws.” (Alvarado citing H.J. van Eikema Hommes)
Up to this point, these associations are governed by private laws. Beyond these and moving to an area to be represented by fixed laws are cities, with separate administration for secular and ecclesiastical purposes. Above cities stand provinces, which also incorporate corporate representation: the ecclesiastic, the nobles, and the commons – with the latter further subdivided into city-dwellers and agrarians. Finally, there is the commonwealth, representing the nation as a whole and holding sovereignty – with sovereignty held by the people and not the ruler.
Subsidiarity is the principle in play: “That which can be dealt with at the more local level should be addressed there, and not at the more general level.”
The church has a role to play, in censure: acts that are not “referred to the courts because they lack an accuser or denouncer.” Call these victimless crimes. Alvarado offers:
That there is a public interest in acting against these activities is something that used to be understood by all, but today is utterly problematic.
This censure involves two aspects, inquisition and reproof. Inquisition means investigation; reproof means punishment – ranging from “fines, confinement in penitentiaries, exclusion from the sacraments and excommunication.” Proportionality must be observed; on the surface, it seems difficult to square the concept of proportionality with “confinement in penitentiaries” when considering actions that lack an accuser or denouncer.
It is for this reason (and it is a critical distinction) that Althusius considers the idea of “rights” in the community – a city with fixed laws. Of course, if one is free to choose his community, this does not seem problematic to a libertarian eye. (I do not speak here of unlimited choices in community, just multiple and reasonably voluntary choices.)
In all cases, Alvarado introduces much more detail about the nature of these institutions and their roles and functions; I will not go into this here as these specifics are regarding his time and place. Instead, what of these “rights” in the community?
There is another topic of interest which needs to be addressed in more detail, and that is the question regarding Althusius’ use of the concepts of natural rights and the social contract.
Some see in Althusius a precursor of Rousseau and his social contract – presumably due to this concept of rights in the community. Alvarado does not agree, offering a broad discussion as to why he disagrees and also citing several scholars who concur with his viewpoint. Instead, there is the concept of citizenship, which is at play only at the level of the city. Citizenship is as much a duty as it is a right:
Citizenship is the right owed to each member of the group, “the obligation and the power of communicating what is useful and necessary as well as the right and power to participate in it.”
One has rights in citizenship to the extent that one also as duties; these extend to those in his community or city. This has little to do with natural rights or a social contract:
Indeed, we must realize that for Althusius, “though the particular community may seem a matter of free choice, living together is a natural process following its own eternal principles without regard to the willful attempts of human beings, conceiving of themselves as lawgivers, absolute and subject to no laws.”
“Living together” has its own “eternal principles.” Dwell on that for a while and consider what defending these “eternal principles” might mean for a sustainable community. Members of the group do obligate themselves to each other, but not in a manner that we would understand as a covenant or contract:
This pact is “the fundamental organizing decision of a living group whose common life transcends this organizing act.” It is the efficient cause, the constituting power of the association, but “belongs by nature to the living groups, just as much as life belongs to the living organism.
The “common life transcends” any “organizing act”; it belongs “to the living groups.” Dwell on these also. This is nothing like social contract theory as it is commonly understood, nor is it a matter of individual rights, at least not in the way we understand “individual” today. This pact is described as “the efficient cause.” Coming from Aristotle: the efficient cause is that which brings the thing into being – what actualizes the potentiality.
As best as I can grasp this “efficient cause” is the group and it is its own entity, and it has rights. The community is a thing with an end or purpose.
While at least some libertarians would agree that a community can voluntarily form under any set of rules and conditions as the members (or “citizens”) see fit, this isn’t what Althusius is getting at. He is driving at the community itself as its own entity with rights in its survival, with “survival” being described as something along the lines of subsidiary governance and Calvinist tradition.
At the risk of being way off base, I see something of Hoppe here. To be clear, I fully believe that Hoppe would agree that a community is free to live under any rules that its members choose. But Hoppe also suggests that for a community to develop and maintain something approaching libertarian governance, there are some rules and conditions that are more valuable than others – even necessary.
I have not read Hoppe to ever write that the “community” has “rights”; I am not going that far in introducing him here. Just that I see some similarities in that both Althusius and Hoppe see the necessity of certain conditions that must be maintained at the community level for a community to survive in a healthy and peaceful manner.