Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Politics According to Althusius

Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.  Whence it is called “symbiotics.”  The subject matter of politics is therefore association, in which the symbiotes pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.

I have often referred to a peaceful society when thinking about a libertarian society.  Why is that?  While peace is certainly not the same as liberty, absent peace it is difficult to maintain liberty in any meaningful sense.  In the worst case, the absence of peace results in death, whether the death of one or the death of millions.  Certainly liberty for those who think of the next world, yet I am reminded of the saying: everyone wants to get to heaven; no one is in a hurry to get there.

But even in the best case, the absence of peace means the presence of conflict; the presence of conflict means people will call for someone to do something about it.  We know where this road leads, and in fact we know that the “someone” who has been called to do something about it will create demand for his services by increasing the supply of the absence of peace.

For this reason, the statement by Althusius seems reasonable to me also from a libertarian perspective.  But the statement and, in fact, the foundation of Althusius’ views, needs a little unpacking.  The first point to clarify is his view of the word “right.”  He will often use this word, yet we should not attribute to quickly the meaning “public right” or “unalienable human right.”

For example, one cannot read Althusius without running headlong into his reliance on the Decalogue, the necessity of training in the worship of God, and the duties that ought to be performed toward one’s neighbors – call it the Golden Rule.  In other words, Althusius is no anarchist and in some ways crosses the line of minarchism. 

The issue is: does he present a model for decentralized and reasonably voluntary governance?  In other words: we need not compare Althusius to utopia; perhaps we ought to compare him merely to our current lot.  Compared to his peers – who offered Leviathan and the unitary and unified sovereign – did Althusius offer a better path?

What does Althusius mean when he uses the word “communication”?  He considers it our common enterprise, involving things, services, and common rights.  It is our daily interaction, including our obligations toward each other that are useful toward achieving and maintain this “harmonious exercise of social life.”

From a libertarian viewpoint, the most difficult aspect to get past in Althusius work is his concept and necessity of a ruler.  There is no getting around this idea in his work; the only issue is: to what extent have I voluntarily agreed to his rule and in what ways might I seceded?  This must be considered in the context that the “I” in question is the voluntarily formed sub-groups (trades, guilds, colleges, etc.), which stand between the ruler and the individual. 

These intermediate groups, as I have noted elsewhere, are fundamentally necessary if one is to hope for the decrease in state power.  Atomistic individualism is not to find its way into Althusius’ view.  Writing of such social hermits, he asks:

For how can they promote the advantage of their neighbor unless they find their way into human society?  How can they perform works of love when they live outside human fellowship?  How can the church be built and the remaining duties of the first table of the Decalogue be performed?

In these questions you find Althusius’ worldview, the picture of his society: voluntarily formed with duties willingly assumed.  The square peg of “duties” also doesn’t fit neatly into the libertarian round hole. 

He bases this issue of duties on the recognition that God did not create all men with equal abilities – this necessitates the division of labor and obligates us to mutual service.  By doing so, “no one would consider another to be valueless.”  In such a manner, a “commonwealth” is formed.

Note: “value,” in this view, is not based on what somebody says or who (or what) somebody is.  Value is based on what somebody does.  A very liberating free-market idea, when considered in economics.  Likely the same when considered in politics and social life.

From what has been said, we further conclude that the efficient cause of political association is consent and agreement among the communicating citizens… The final cause of politics is the enjoyment of a comfortable, useful, and happy life, and a peaceful and quiet welfare…


And a warning:

But if all were truly equal, and each wished to rule others according to his own will, discord would easily arise, and by discord the dissolution of society.  There would be no standard of virtue or merit, and it follows that equality itself would be the greatest inequality.

We find in this statement the downfall of universalist utopians – whether communist or libertarian.  Without hierarchy in society – derived naturally, defined culturally – society dissolves.  The issue remains: how voluntary?  The more naturally derived the hierarchy, the easier it is for the resultant structures and institutions to be accepted by the broader commonwealth.

As all men do not have equal abilities, there will be naturally formed hierarchies – in family, community, guild, college, the church, and ultimately in the governance of the commonwealth.  This will be examined next, beginning with the family.


  1. Hmm, I always thought politics was the art of deception. And in my lifetime at least, the efficient cause of political association has been the very opposite of consent and agreement. One could say my observation of that cause is what turned me toward libertarianism. I do agree with your conclusion, though.

    1. There are many definitions, to include:

      Politics is the study of the ways in which countries are governed.


      One way - and the way most prevalent - is deception. Althusius is describing a different way.

  2. BM: "Althusius is describing a different way."

    Yes, but as you say, he also talks of the necessity of a ruler. I'm of the opinion that politics is rife with deception due primarily to the desire for control over others, or to take their stuff. The leaders of the sub groups providing, in theory, checks against that control would also engage in politics in the interests of their respective groups, or themselves.

    Human nature being what it is, I think it's a stretch to believe such a system could remain reasonably open and honest.

    1. "The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
      To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
      To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

      Douglas Adams

    2. Jeff, I don't disagree at all. I am still looking for Althusius' to present a case and method for secession from this tyrant if it is desired by a lower, voluntary institution.

      My one thought is that a philosophy that presents an absolute, singular sovereign (e.g. Hobbes) will always lead to worse outcomes than the model presented by Althusius.

      Eventually, I think it comes down to having more than one institution with authority - e.g. the Church and king in medieval Europe.

    3. "Eventually, I think it comes down to having more than one institution with authority - e.g. the Church and king in medieval Europe."

      Yes, and perhaps (like in medieval times)
      1) with the institutions competing for a people's loyalty acting on different levels (political vs moral authority), and

      2) these different institutions not covering the exact same geographic area (Church had a wider sphere of influence than just one kingdom, republic or city state in Europe and therefore lots of competing political entities, more or less under one overarching umbrella, providing a shared moral framework/culture).


  3. I almost prefer the use of the archaic "commonweal" in substitution of word commonwealth.


    I look forward to your further writings on Althusius's thoughts regarding polity.

    Hoppe made a good case for the potential of a monarch or aristocracy in providing more libertarian outcomes than democracy. One of the failures of the USA has been the movement from republicanism to democracy because of the latter's usurpation of property rights.

    A monarch that believed in property rights, free trade, was bound by a moral/ethical system(like Christianity) and operated accordingly could easily produce more libertarian outcomes than what we have now in the US...the question of voluntaryism is always a difficult one. Ideally there'd be many governance systems for people to choose from to help that notion along and provide a natural counterbalance/market/competition.

  4. The most interesting statement that Althusius makes is "the efficient cause of political association is consent and agreement among the communicating citizens". Now depending on the definition of "cause" this means that consent and agreement are the fundamental aspect of politics. The converse is also true, maybe more importantly, that 'with no consent or agreement there is no politics'.

    I really like that idea. However, I don't know it to be true outside of a positivist type of framework. So the question is, how do we know that statement is true? What evidence or argument does Althusius give? As a Christian he had to have Romans 13 in mind as he was thinking through this stuff.

    The way he is writing reminds me a lot of Mises in Human Action describing what society is. In fact, Mises' societ and Althusius' politics seem to be synonymous. If so, Mises does provide a logical argument in support of his view. I think Althusius would need to go a step further to show how 'consent and agreement' relate to the ruler.

    But if he does or if someone else can, that is a huge deal theoretically. It declares illegitimate any ruler who doesn't seek 'consent and agreement' and would justify acts of secession even including violence since any coercion or violence from the ruler would mean violence to be free from that ruler is a right act.

    1. RMB, Regarding your last paragraph, while I am not yet done with the book it is this topic that remains of most interest to me.

      Regarding Romans 13, Gerard Casey did a great analysis of the teaching that has come from this chapter:


  5. “Note: “value,” in this view, is not based on what somebody says or who (or what) somebody is. Value is based on what somebody does. A very liberating free-market idea, when considered in economics. ”

    An argument against Althusius’ view, above. I haven’t read the book, what is here. My argument is that a value is not what somebody does, but what somebody wants. That reveals that political opposition is not over values, but what to do to acquire them. To me, Althusius has written that when 100% of people value a liberating free market, then all will have it, no action necessary.

    A value and the action necessary to acquire a value are two separate choices. When a liberating free market is posited as a universal value, that begs the question of freedom to do what, when, where and with whom. Libertarians know these answers, but others do not.

    For me, Althusius’ reliance on liberating free markets as an end value, fails to encourage reconsideration that the left’s politically enforced socio-economic conformity is the origin, not resolution, of the consequences they oppose. Leftist thought is that of coercively enforced political conformity resolving oppression-derived inequality imagined to have been created by rampant free markets and choice driven social interaction, allowing one tribe to oppress another. Classes, genders, races, nations, etc.

    Because the leftist view is of tribal action, leftists inevitably misconstrue the individual interaction of libertarian economic and social freedom from coercion, as a threat to social and economic stability. The free markets libertarians want, appear as the existing problem; that of non-existent _social and economic_ oppression, for which political oppression is a justifiable, re-equalizing remedy.

    Because leftism is practically defined by this view of the destructive consequences of free markets/choice driven social interaction, they redefine the whole of libertarian thought as supporting contentious atomistic individualism, hordes of anti-social hermits, utopianism, greedy capitalist exploitation, or just irrational lunacy.

    Does Althusius suggest a prevention for this leftist reinterpretation?