Politica: Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, by Johannes 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.