Thursday, May 17, 2018

No Turning Back

When there is no turning back, then we should concern ourselves only with the best way of going forward.

-        Paulo Coelho

In an industrial and mobile age, of what relevance is the understanding that “community” (family, kin, tribe, church) plays a foundational role in maintaining a relatively libertarian order?  It is a question I often ask myself; it is a question that will begin to be explored in this post.

There was a time when life was not possible outside of these traditional community institutions; this is no longer the case.  Today the individual is set almost absolutely free from reliance on family and church.  Absent these functional roles, is it reasonable to expect that such institutions are capable of playing a culturally binding role? 

The problem is moral, intellectual, social and political – in an environment drastically different than the traditional.  The solution will not be found in a longing for the past:

[The solution is in no way] compatible with antiquarian revivals of groups and values no longer in accord with the requirements of the industrial and democratic age in which we live and to which we are unalterably committed.

I am reminded of something from chapter 15 of Rothbard’s For A New Liberty:

The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.

Yet I am offered a conflict, as Rothbard continues:

But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured.  For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy.  In short…in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity.  For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work.

Liberty, it seems to me, cannot be secured strictly on a foundation of industrialization.  We see – both in our age and Nisbet’s work – that it is that same industrial age that has helped to reduce the influence played by the institutions that traditionally afforded man liberty. 

 Returning to Nisbet:

Historically, our problem must be seen in terms of the decline in functional and psychological significance of such groups as the family, the small local community, and the various other traditional relationships that have immemorially mediated between the individual and his society.

Such groups played a perceptible difference in the maintenance of life.  Such groups play little if any functional or psychological role today.  Absent playing such roles, on what basis would these groups then have standing to play their traditional mediating role?  We see today that they have no standing.

Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded on kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principle moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society.

Mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, economic production – no longer are these provided by “small traditional associations.”  Without this functional and psychological role, it cannot be expected that these associations can play their mediating (decentralizing) role.  The reasons for an individual’s allegiance to these associations are absent.

But is this to be blamed solely on the industrialization and mobility of our age?  Nisbet offers an examination of the impact of humanitarian reforms brought to economically underdeveloped regions, yet his words ring true even for the most advanced economies:

Some of the most extreme instances of insecurity and conflict of values in native cultures have resulted not from the nakedly ruthless forces of economic exploitation but from the most commendable (by Western standards) acts of humanitarian reform.

We see this even in the West.  Government has taken on the role traditionally played by family, community, church.  Government has subsidized local-community-destroying behavior, resulting in ever-increasing local-community-destroying behavior.  The examples are not limited to the undeveloped world, as Nisbet offers:

What is to be observed so vividly in many areas of the East is also, and has been, for some time, a notable characteristic of Western society.

Physically (and virtually), man is in many ways less isolated than ever; yet he is more isolated than ever from any “sense of meaningful proximity to the major ends and purposes of his culture.”  No amount of material welfare will replace man’s need for meaningful community.


…irrespective of particular groups, there must be in any stable culture, in any civilization that prizes its integrity, functionally significant and psychologically meaningful groups and associations lying intermediate to the individual and larger values and purposes of his society.

Today, there is no intermediation; instead we have governmental agencies, large industrial concerns, unions and large charities.  And football.

The solution will not be found in a longing for the old, but in recognition of the new: where authority and function was found in traditional community, it has now been fully incorporated into the modern state.


I cannot help but see in this a theme that we have visited often: liberty will be found in political decentralization – the all-encompassing role of the modern state must be destroyed. 

But this decentralization isn’t just for the benefit of giving us each more choice regarding the type of society in which we choose to live.  There seems to be a mutually reinforcing relationship: political decentralization will return authority and functionality to evermore local institutions, returning meaning to relationships and allowing governance to form in a more voluntary manner, via intermediating institutions.


  1. Does not the whole concept of ‘liberty’ only arise in response to the presence of political rule ? It is the existence of the state which provokes the question of liberty. Absent political control one has no need to speak of liberty. This is why Rothbard’s fundamental project has always been to swap political control for consumer control. In Rothbard’s scheme all services, particularly the provisioning of security and justice, are under direct consumer control. At present we exist in a hybrid of transnational corporation and regional political power centers. In the ultimate realization of Rothbard’s scheme political power must completely give way to integrated layers of privately produced security and justice - administered by insurance companies - themselves governed by consumer’s willingness to purchase policies from them.

    At this juncture the concern for the question of liberty disappears, replaced by the question of living the life of cultivated leisure. The artist plays the fundamental role in such future society. Different artists offer different visions for the sort of mood and mode the cultivated life should entail. It is just this yet unrealized society of cultivated leisure, and not the pursuit of liberty, toward which Rothbard’s philosophy finally tends.

    The goal then is to swap out the utilitarian economic society of past and present for the future society of cultivated leisure. We can only imagine the sort of wondrous relations such a society might bestow. What is clear is that they will be of a far finer type, existing in a much nobler and more pleasant atmosphere, than the brutish, oppressive, and insufferably dull relations we know today.

  2. "Some of the most extreme instances of insecurity and conflict of values in native cultures have resulted not from the nakedly ruthless forces of economic exploitation but from the most commendable (by Western standards) acts of humanitarian reform." - Nisbet

    This quote you've selected above fits nicely with Ayn Rand's mentor Isabel Paterson when she said:

    "Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends."

    and further:

    "Perhaps then he is to do only what is actually "good" for others. But will those others know what is good for them? No, that is ruled out by the same difficulty. Then shall A do what he thinks is good for B, and B do what he thinks is good for A? Or shall A accept only what he thinks is good for B, and vice versa? But that is absurd. Of course what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine."

    and C.S. Lewis when he said:

    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

    Maybe these planners, progressives, or democratic socialist apologists of state power didn't mean to be tyrannical. Maybe they were just operating under the "approval of their conscience" (or the devil's). I just find that hard to believe.

  3. This humanitarian with the guillotine, which often takes the form of a state usurping the traditional roles of family and community as you've noted above has consequences in the economic realm as well. And it brings up a question I've had concerning the nature of giving. Is giving only 'good' when done on a small interpersonal communal level?

    It seems to me that when it is done on a grand scale as a measure of state policy, whether it is foreign aid or domestic welfare transfers, it often has 'bad' effects. In regards to foreign aid, the giving tends to destroy local economies and therefore a community's ability to sustain itself. In regards to domestic welfare, a similar situation begins occurring: whole generations become entombed in poverty, poor work ethic, and criminal behavior.

    I think it also has undesirable effects when the US exports state subsidized farm products to developing nations at prices which the local growers cannot compete with, thereby destroying local economies.

    However, when a foreign nation (say China) begins exporting produced goods to a developed economy (say the US) for less cost than is feasible domestically, I think this is a good thing for both China and the US. US workers are freed up to produce value in some other field of work, US consumers get to enjoy more affordable goods, and the living standards of Chinese producers and workers go up. Clearly there is some pain to be had when domestic workers are freed up to find employment in another industry, but overall, I think the effect is positive. Without cheap stuff produced abroad, Americans would really be feeling the effects of inflation. On the other hand, from a strategic perspective, maybe it's a bad thing that we aren't.

    It seems like there is a line demarcating when giving free or trading cheap stuff to another country has good effects and when it has bad effects. Maybe the Catholic principle of subsidiarity has merit in the realm of economics too?