Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
Casey closes his nine-hundred page overview with a summary,
a signing-off, an explanation of why he took on this challenge. It is a most excellent chapter.
You might have wondered on occasion
why we should have bothered with so much old stuff?
Casey’s survey began with the dawn of man; his substantial
focus on political though begins with ancient Greece, beginning perhaps 800
BC. I only picked up the story with the
chapter on Christianity, about 200 pages in; I will, at some point, read
through the first chapters…how on earth is it that I skipped Aristotle and
In any case, Casey answers his own question: the Whig
historians aren’t correct. It isn’t so
that things get better day after day, year after year. It is a theme that Hans Hoppe recently
spoke on extensively. As you know,
this is also my view.
Something to consider, perhaps: if we are to measure freedom’s
progress in our material goods, we have never been more free than today. Sure, there is room for improvement, but
overall who can complain when compared to much of the rest of the world and
certainly world history. In other words,
why bother with all of this libertarian kvetching?
I think the only reason to bother is moral; it is in the
political philosophy where our freedoms have not progressed – in many ways
Casey offers an overview as to why he believes this: good
ideas often aren’t taken up, an example of which he offers in Johannes
Althusius (1563 – 1638). Had
Althusius’ idea of vertically arranged, interlocking but detachable entities
with the foundation built on the family won out over Bodin’s idea of
sovereignty residing at the top, 400 years of western history would have been
quite different – and far more free.
The Middle Ages offer
another example, with an almost infinite number of political and legal
bodies competing under a moral framework of the Church.
…the authority of rulers was
limited and the obligation of those who were ruled to offer obedience to that
authority was conditional. …the king, as part of the community, was as bound by
that law as anyone else. …there was a mutual exchange of promises between king
The medieval Church played a vital role in checking the
power of the king, providing a competing, overlapping authority to which an aggrieved
could appeal. The medieval Christian
Church discovered the individual, made in the image and likeness of God; it was
an individual who could find his freedom within the social and political
framework of the time.
The Europe of today (or maybe the Europe of a century or two
ago) is seen as a blending of Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christianity; the
role of the political practices of the Germanic tribes is often overlooked
despite playing at least as large a role in our freedom as any of these other
Casey notes the far-too-heavy and unjustifiable burden that
many place on libertarianism; it is not the highest end in life, but only the
highest political end. He cites
Rothbard, who offers: “Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the
highest or indeed the only principle or end of life.”
Contrary to what some critics of libertarianism suggest –
that libertarians view their philosophy as the highest of all social values – Casey
offers that it should be seen, instead, as the lowest; it is the most
fundamental, a necessary condition if one is looking for an ordered life.
Yet here again there are critics – and rightfully so: there
will be found libertarians who proclaim “anything peaceful,” as if anything
peaceful will maintain order – order being a necessary condition if one is to
maintain liberty. Of course,
libertarians do not advocate for limiting anything peaceful via force; yet we
also need not glorify or be happy with the consequence of such a worldview.
I believe that a civilized existence
requires both freedom and order. …The
question isn’t really whether order
is desirable; it is what kind of order
is desirable, where that order is to
come from and how that order is to be
Casey offers that for libertarians – just as for Althusius –
genuine order rises intrinsically from the free interaction of individuals, and
does not come extrinsically from on high.
Casey leaves unsaid here, but I will suggest that this intrinsic order
is built on a foundation that does come from on high – but not from man.
Althusius was attempting to design a political framework
that would mimic the order of the Middle Ages without the benefit of a unified
Church. In that framework, the law
worked because it was not legislated by man; it was the old and good law. It was custom, refined by Christian ethics.
Rothbard remarked that custom ‘must
be voluntarily upheld and not enforced by coercion’ and that ‘people would be
well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of
This is certainly so if one wants to maintain order, which
is necessary if one wants to maintain liberty.
It also presents the difficulty for adherents of the non-aggression
principle: if custom is valuable – even necessary – to maintain liberty, how
is one to defend custom?
A method offered by Casey to defend and perpetuate this
custom is through the family; unconsciously acquired cultural norms are passed
along at an early age, development proceeds accordingly. Burke
would say that these norms, the necessary foundation, are manners.
If such norms are not developed when young, it is not likely
that they will be developed through the intellect when an adult. When it comes to the family and the State, it
is clear that everything possible is done to subsidize family-destroying
actions. Perhaps we libertarians need
not wonder why very few people respond to our rational libertarian
Many libertarians argue that such cultural norms are
encumbrances placed on us in violation of the non-aggression principle. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor chapter from The Brothers Karamazov is offered in
reply: such encumbrances choose us before we choose them; there is no “mythical
free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties.”
Granted, this is more of an Orthodox – rather than Western –
idea of freedom; however, it was
Orthodox in the West perhaps prior
to the Renaissance, and most certainly prior to the Enlightenment.
Ralph Wood suggests that our freedom resides in freely
embracing these moral, religious and political obligations. Hard to stomach, I know. But what if living within cultural norms is
necessary for liberty? Would a
libertarian then embrace this? Based on
what chain of reasoning derived from the non-aggression principle? Or do
we require something more if it is liberty that we are after?
I am on quite safe grounds to suggest that Western society
has lost this idea of order coming from cultural norms. I am also on safe grounds to suggest that the
relationship between this loss of cultural norms and man-made legislation and
regulation is almost perfectly inversely correlated.
For us to find liberty – as measured in a reduction in
man-made legislation and regulation – we might consider the value in
supporting, once again, the cultural norms from which our liberty came.
Whether these societies can
replenish their social capital is a matter for conjecture. Some societies have done so in the past – but
others have not, and have perished.
I am on quite safe grounds to suggest that there will be no
freedom to be found in that.