Platform Part 1: On the Citizen & the State

 This is the first part of our attempt to codify, classify, and clarify our positions here at the Georgia Wonk. We feel that this is endeavor will be invaluable going forward, both for us and for our readers. It is, after all, important to have principles. the first part of the platform deals with the relationship between the citizens of a nation and the State itself. It begins with a brief introduction and explanation of terms. Then it asks “Why do we need a State at all?” Finally, it concludes by offering our views on what the role of the State should be, and how it relates to the Citizen.

Part One: On the Citizen & the State

The business of politics is the business of relationships. The root of the word is the Greek polis, or city. Politics, therefore, is about the administration of cities–or, to use our preferred term, a Tribe. A gathering of individuals with unique goals and desires, each attempting to maximize his or her own benefit. Citizens.

Brother Rob says that “politics refers to the life of the citizens, how we arrange our common life together.” That’s an adequate working definition, but it ignores the simple fact that politics isn’t about citizens arranging their lives with each other; it’s about the State arranging the Citizen’s lives for them.

The State, in whatever form it takes (king, democratic republic, Space Pope), provides the agency of arrangement. It is the organizing force above and behind the Tribe. If the Citizens are pieces on a board, the State is the player, moving the pieces around. How much power or influence the State has depends on the systems in place; how you feel about that relationship depends on your political views. Here at the Georgia Wonk, we take the view that the State has a crucial role in the lives of the Tribe, a role on which we will elaborate in the coming days and weeks.

It’s not an uncommon political ideology these days to insist that the State has no role in the life of the Citizen, that the power in the relationship should shift entirely into the hands of the people. This its roots in libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It sees small government and unregulated markets as a moral imperative, Paul Ryan-style. 

ryan_stiles_6677284

Note that this has nothing to do with Ryan Stiles.

For the sake of argument, we’ll use the term “Conservative” to describe these ideas, but we’ll do it tentatively, because that word carries a lot of baggage these days, what with institutional conservatism being hijacked by the burgeoning authoritarian kleptocracy. To those Conservatives who see the State as distasteful, we want to take a moment to attempt to justify its existence. To do that, we will take a look at the two most common assertions of Conservative philosophy: that outside interference on personal affairs is wrong, and that a man’s self-interest will guide him to doing what is best for the Tribe. We hope that by addressing these, we can provide a compelling argument for the necessity of the State.

The State: Why We Need It

Question One: Is Outside Interference on a Citizen’s Affairs Morally Unjustified?

For the hard core of Conservative Libertarians, citizens are sovereign entities.

sovereign-_citizen

Picture unrelated.

All citizens, by definition, know what is best for them, and any attempt by any other entity, government or otherwise, to alter that path or plan is by definition not what is best for them (we’ll set aside, for now, the fact that, most of the politicians who advocate for these beliefs care far more about corporate business entities than private citizens). Whether it’s taxes (theft!), climate regulations (roadblocks to progress!) or welfare programs (wealth redistribution!), a fully unregulated market is the only ethically viable system.

This is attractive, but false. We will defer, for a moment, to a man much smarter than us:

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself….

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

That’s Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

hobbesshrugdance

Picture unrelated.

Hobbes’ point was (if we can be permitted a massive oversimplification), that men (that is to say, humans) live in competition for limited resources and that, without a “common power to keep them in awe,” life has no purpose beyond survival. We all want to maximize our own benefit, and without something above or beyond us, we will do so at the expense of all others. In this situation, there can be no art; no commerce; no innovation; no flourishing of spirit; no joy. When you trust no one, when you are looking over your shoulder, when you’re desperate to stay alive, you cannot build a civilization.

The State–for Hobbes, the Leviathan–imposes its will over the Citizens. Its will–the Law–establishes prohibitions. Ideally, those Laws are just (we can borrow the words here of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he writes that “a just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law”). The State supports the Law with sufficient and appropriate force, and if the State is legitimate, the Citizens enter into a compact with the State. Under the terms of this compact, the Citizens abide by those Laws that are just (or else they are punished) and the State does not unlawfully exercise its authority (or else there is revolution, whether at the ballot box or in the streets). When this compact works, Citizens can go about the business of flourishing, having at least some sense that they can count on seeing the next sunrise.

Without a system of laws, whether it be a tribal code or a bureaucracy, we will destroy one another in an attempt to get all we can. The Libertarians and Capitalists are correct–Laws are limitations. Our impulses are checked. We submit to reduced freedom so that others are not deprived of their freedom (for more about freedoms and unfreedoms, the Georgia Wonk highly recommends Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen).

Question Two: Will a man’s self-interest produce positive results for the Tribe?

The historically Conservative view has its roots in Adam Smith’s invisible hand, “the notion that an individual’s selfish gain is a gain for all society.” In The Theory of Moral Sentiment, Smith writes that the rich “are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

It’s an attractive proposition, but we don’t accept it. Quite simply, the Georgia Wonk doesn’t have that much faith in human decision-making abilities. We point to the “Tragedy of the Commons,” the economic theory that states that individuals making rational decisions to pursue their own self-interests can result in harm to the greater collective whole (there is, of course, a great deal more nuance to the theory, which as conceived dealt specifically with commonly-shared resources. It gets tied up in population control–we use the idea here in a very broad sense).

If the invisible hand was real, Exxon would have saved the planet back in ’77. If the invisible hand was real, we would never have had a housing bubble. Human history is dominated, not by people sacrificing short-term gains for long-term benefits, but of people crippling the future in exchange for wealth and power in the present. All of these decisions, taken individually, may be rational; collectively, they are disastrous.

Thus, to prevent disaster, we all need to recognize a final arbiter of decisions, a force above the individual that can recognize the community impact of individual action. This is the State. And it is true that the State compels non-voluntary action. The Tribe must submit to some level of coercion; Garrett Hardin, who popularized the term “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, wrote that  “The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort.” But as we saw earlier, coercions–limits on personal freedoms–can be necessary. He goes on to say,

[Temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so.

As a final note before we conclude, we will concede that the State, in practice, is never infallible, and we recognize the potential for corruption inherent in granting such power to any central authority. But we do not feel this changes the truth: for a Tribe to function, there must be something to ensure individual compliance with the best wishes of the group.

The State: What It Is

Since we need a State, we need to determine to what extent it is involved in the lives of its Citizens. For that, we once again defer to our betters:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And elsewhere:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity…

As it was in the 18th century, so it is now: The role of the State is to protect and preserve the rights of the Citizens. Justice, Tranquility, Defence [sic], Welfare…all of these are means, not ends, to ensuring that the rights of the Citizens, the liberties and freedoms that are ours by birth, are not threatened.

So what are those rights? What are those liberties? What are those freedoms?

That will have to wait for Part Two.



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  1. Tragedy of the Commons – The Georgia Wonk
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