Saturday, October 6, 2018

Governance by Consent

Taken from the Foreword by Daniel J. Elazar, entitled Althusius’ Grand Design for a Federal Commonwealth

The road to modern democracy began with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, particularly among those exponents of Reformed Protestantism who developed a theology and politics that set the Western world back on the road to popular self-government emphasizing liberty and equality.

Might as well start with the heavy stuff.  There was an alternative offered, and it was offered by Johannes Althusius at the end of the first century after the Reformation.  Althusius emerged from the Reformed tradition, and built a political philosophy that combined the experience of the Holy Roman Empire with the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism.

Consent, not dictate, would form the basis of the polity.  A covenant – federal (from the Latin foedus: covenant).  According to Elazar, the Biblical design for human governance is federal:

The covenant motif is central to the biblical worldview, the basis of all relationships, the mechanism for defining and allocating authority, and the foundation of biblical political teaching.

He offers three reasons in support of this view: first, the network of covenants between God and man; second, the most visible manifestation of a Biblical commonwealth was tribal, “instituted and reaffirmed by covenant to function under a common constitution and laws”; third, the Biblical end of days sees a restoration of these tribal systems – “a world confederation or league of nations, each preserving its own integrity while accepting a common Divine covenant and constitutional order.”

In some respects, all subsequent federalist grand designs until Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s in the mid-nineteenth century are derived from or somehow related to the scriptural precedent.

Proudhon is generally regarded as the father of anarchism – but this should not be confused with anarcho-capitalism.  He does offer a glimpse into the kissing cousins of libertarianism and communism: with differences regarding private property (a strong disagreement, with Proudhon offering “Property is theft”) and hierarchical institutions (libertarianism is neutral) separating the two – quite important distinctions, but neither can survive the lack of a reasonably traditional ethical order.

He denounced the ‘government of man by man’ as ‘oppression,’ and in its place advocated a society based on ‘equality, law, independence, and proportionality’ which ‘finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.’ He defined ‘anarchy’ as ‘the absence of a master, of a sovereign,’ and envisaged a society in which ‘the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason.’

In 1840, far from advocating the complete abolition of all forms of government, Proudhon was merely advocating the replacement of one form of government, government based on the will of the sovereign, with another form of government, government based on reason, or as Proudhon described it, ‘scientific socialism’…

Government representatives from the working class – no mention of family, no principles of subsidiarity, no representation from the “capitalists”: ‘What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!’

Society was to be organized around five autonomous ‘corporations’ independent of the national assembly, each with its own democratically elected ministers, representing ‘(1) extractive industry, (2) manufacturing concerns, (3) commercial enterprise, (4) agriculture, and (5) science, letters, and the arts.’  It was a system of ‘industrial democracy’ on a national scale.

No church.

Returning to Althusius and the foreword by Elazar:

Althusius’ grand design is developed out of a series of building blocks or self-governing cells from the smallest, most intimate connections to the universal commonwealth, each of which is internally organised and linked to the others by some form of consensual relationship.

Althusius, unfortunately, lost out to Jean Bodin and Bodin’s concept of sovereignty.  The United States revived this idea of federalism…albeit with one seemingly minor but perhaps most vital distinction: where Althusius’ foundation was family and kinship, the American federalism was based on the individual.  (I have previously examined the issues raised by this focus on individualism, via a review of work done by Robert Nisbet; the several posts can be found here.)

If you don’t want to read these several posts, Elazar offers a nice summary:

[Althusius’ ideas] remained peripheral even to students of modern federalism since modern federalism was so strongly connected with the principle of individualism that there was no interest in considering the Althusian effort to deal with the problems of family, occupation, and community along with individual rights in establishing political order.

And without competing governance institutions of family, occupation, community, guild, church, university, etc., the individual stands naked before the state. 

Only now, as we have come to see the consequences of unrestrained individualism, both philosophically and practically, have political scientists begun to explore problems of liberty in relation to primordial groups – families, particularly, and ethnic communities.

Now, as noted above, I have written much about my views on the topic of individualism.  I have concluded that an individual cannot stand alone against state power – of course, I am not referring to firepower (although true here also); I refer to relationships and competing governance institutions.  Absent competing, meaningful governance institutions, individuals will turn to the state, and the state will welcome these individuals openly.

Does this mean that I believe something other than only individuals think, only individuals act, the individual is responsible for his actions, that an individual’s rights are superior to the will of the masses, or that an individual has the right – even obligation – to dissent?

No…let’s not be silly.

Returning to Elazar, he summarizes Althusius’ views as follows:

·        The foundations of his political philosophy are wholly covenantal.
·        He deals with sovereignty by vesting it in the people as a whole.
·        He serves as a bridge between Biblical foundations of Western Civilization and today’s modern political ideas.
·        He develops the idea of the law of the kingdom, basing it on divine and natural law.
·        Although a product of his times, he leaves open the possibility of a more classless and egalitarian basis for political participation.
·        He recognizes the distinction of public and private realms, yet also recognizes the connection between the two.
·        He defines politics as the effective ordering of communication – communication meaning our interaction considering things, services and rights.

Look, I understand it isn’t pure NAP.  However, it is a theory of decentralization and subsidiarity in a world where Christendom is no longer unified.  In other words, not a bad idea for even our age.

Today’s enlightened citizen of the west has supernatural individual freedom – the freedom of the gods, freedom to self-identify and even…transform!  If only our ancestors could see how free we are, in our supernatural individual freedom.

Has this focus on individualism, at the cost of the support of competing governance institutions, really improved our freedom?  If the answer is yes, color me confused.  If the answer is no, how does libertarian theory need to adapt to deal with this?

This compared to those in the medieval world – who had to suffer through the burden of many competing governance structures which afforded room for liberty to grow.  We only have one measly little institution standing between us and total freedom; all other institutions have lost their power over us.  Oh…and their power over the last institution standing.

We stand individually naked and individually alone and individually free in front of our only remaining functional institution, the state.  The “individual” has won the battle – well, at least as far as any individual can take it; what of the war?


Althusius struggled with a problem that has only grown worse since his time: for him, how to bring back the decentralized and competing governance structures of medieval Europe without a Church that both united Christendom and was substantial enough to influence kings and keep them in check, was trouble enough.  Today, we face not only a dis-united Church; the entire concept of Christian is virtually purged from society.

What institution will compete with the kings of today as a check on governmental authority?  Perhaps it could be American football, European football?  Fantasy football?  Of course, I am being a bit facetious, as none of these is built on a foundation to challenge state power – they thrive with the support of state power.

The only institution in the west today that can perform such a function, morally and institutionally, is the church – broadly speaking, of course, as it is not the same Church of the Middle Ages.  It certainly is not unified; most problematic, many of the denominations and congregations are barely noticeable as Christian.  But no other institution has both the strength and authority to perform this function.

Do you have a better idea?


  1. I look forward to Tim Carney’s book along the same lines:

  2. Since when was a Theocracy "consent?"

    1. The article isn't about theocracy; it's about the need for intermediary social institutions to act as a check on political centralization and arbitrary authority. It doesn't necessarily have to be the church, but just try and name one with a better track record.

  3. I think you (and Althusius) are correct. Not sure how this will all work out but it is an exciting thought.

    Also, the Church is disunited in many ways. However, there are many efforts in Christian circles for churches to work together across denominational lines. There are subjects to unify for. In my city, there are multiple groups of pastors from different denominations that meet and discuss issues and pray together. The kind of associations you are hinting at are already developing.

    1. I just got back from one at my Catholic parish with the local Jewish and Orthodox congregations. The main point was to talk about our unity. My priest, by the way, is libertarian and believes in subsidiarity.

    2. RMB: "However, there are many efforts in Christian circles for churches to work together across denominational lines."

      This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper...

      I have seen here in Holland how cooperations and mergers between denomination have resulted in emptied out churches, sold, repurposed and simply replaced by shopping malls. Mergers imo are not signs of progress, but of decline.

    3. Rien,

      I understand your reservations about religious mergers, but I think there's a difference between that and a confederation of religious leaders who's congregations may have different faiths yet share many traditional values in common.

    4. Rien, I think ATL describes the situation I was trying to describe correctly. I am not talking about mergers where struggling churches are combining numbers or making decisions to sell off property.

      I am talking about strong churches laying aside some of their differences to work together where they have common interests.

    5. ATL,

      How about “Libertarianism in theory is religious recentralization in practice”?

    6. Eric,

      Depends on the religion, and as long as its institutions stay in their proper sphere (social rather than political)!

      I think there is much to be said in the way of liberty for political decentralization within a common cultural territory (especially if it is a truly Christian culture).

  4. "Do you have a better idea?"

    Probably not. I like the idea of a Christian revival in cultural importance, but I'm not sure how winnable that war is at this point. On the other hand, perhaps that is the only war worth fighting, even for those who only care about liberty. Along the same lines as your last post, maybe you can't have liberty without Christianity or some similar transcendental belief (and I readily concede the danger in choosing an alternative transcendental belief).

    Private associations, or those institutions Althusius deemed as part of the Collegium, including the church, must make a comeback if we are going to further the cause of liberty. But how are we to make that happen? How are we to encourage private initiative when the path of least resistance is just to let the state handle all of society's problems and when we are already forced to pay for the state's remedies?

    "The members of a community are private and diverse associations of families and collegia, not the individual members of private associations. These persons, by their coming together, now become not spouses, kinsmen, and colleagues, but citizens of the same community. Thus passing from the private symbiotic relationship, they unite in the one body of a community. Differing from citizens, however, are foreigners, outsiders, aliens, and strangers whose duty it is to mind their own business, make no strange inquiries, not even to be curious in a foreign commonwealth, but to adapt themselves, as far as good conscience permits, to the customs of the place and city where they live in order that they may not be a scandal to others." - Althusius, Politica

    I think that contained within this quote is a remedy to much that ails Western society. Instead of the naked individual exposed to the state, one would be represented by one's family and one's voluntary associations. Instead of open border egalitarianism, there's a clear distinction between citizen and foreigner. It's not perfectly libertarian, but it'd be a step in the right direction. I think the one caveat that would make Althusius' system libertarian is to give the provinces, the cities, the associations and the families the right to peacefully secede (along with their property) from associations above them.

    1. “…but I'm not sure how winnable that war is at this point.”

      I am not looking for a revival or converts. I am looking for Christian leaders to preach according to Christ’s teachings and apply these to war, militarism, torture, unquestioned support of Israel, etc. In other words, a revival of those already attending church.

      “How are we to encourage private initiative when the path of least resistance is just to let the state handle all of society's problems and when we are already forced to pay for the state's remedies?”

      Here again, churches can take a more leading role in dealing with society’s problems – all consistent with Christ’s teachings. By doing this, they will return to being a governance institution with meaning in people’s lives.

      “It's not perfectly libertarian…”

      I just today read this section in the book, and the same quote caught my attention for the same reasons. I probably have a post or two to write before I get to this….

      As to perfectly libertarian…yes, we have to start somewhere. Just decentralize politically, and then decentralize again…and again. The one thing I know for sure: we aren’t going to get from today’s condition to the condition of 7 billion free individuals (or my view of 1.5 billion family units) without a few intermediate steps.

      “…give the provinces, the cities, the associations and the families the right to peacefully secede…”

      I agree, but I am not ready to give up on the possibility that Althusius offers this. I mentioned earlier his comments about the Netherlands gaining their “secession” from Spain. I still haven’t written this post!

    2. "By doing this, they will return to being a governance institution with meaning in people’s lives."

      I hope and pray that this happens.

      "I still haven’t written this post!"

      I submit and retreat into patience! =)

    3. ATL, I have not yet successfully found a way to get the real world to stop interfering in my reading and writing...