The Liberal Leviathan

The Liberal Leviathan

There’s a very funny moment in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, in which Pappy O’Daniel[1], a southern politician and would-be populist, is conferring with his brain trust. His dim-bulb son remarks that their opponent is doing well with a message of reform: “People like that reform! Maybe we should get us some.”

This in turn has always reminded me of a different (also very funny) scene in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, in which Strepsiades (basically the Homer Simpson of Attic comedy) begs Socrates[2] to instruct him in the ways of the unjust speech. But as one reads the play, it becomes clear that Strepsiades has almost no understanding of justice and injustice as independent concepts; he simply holds the vague idea that being a master of the unjust speech will help him get out of his debts.

I thought of both of these examples while observing the Trudeau government’s invocation of Emergency Powers in response to the ongoing (as of this writing) protests in Ottawa—and even more so while observing the responses of so many bien-pensant types to the government’s move.

For those who don’t know, Justin Trudeau, besides being Prime Minister of Canada, is also the leader of the country’s Liberal Party. The vast majority of those applauding the government are course party members, or members of the (also notionally liberal) New Democratic Party, or are well-wishers abroad who would almost certainly belong to one of those parties were they Canadian. More broadly still, whether Canadian or foreign, they tend to belong to a white-collar class of “knowledge-workers”—in education, media, consulting, and finance. The material returns for these occupations can vary widely, of course, but they are joined by a common set of cultural commitments and practices.

More to the point, they would broadly consider themselves liberal. But what do they suppose liberalism is? I have come to suspect that most, however well-credentialed, have something like the relationship to the idea of liberalism as Pappy’s idiot son had to “reform” and Strepsiades had to the category of “unjust speech.” That is to say, they think of it as something instrumentally useful and probably normatively desirable, but its actual contents are vague at. best. For practical purposes, it functions as a kind of self-referential signaling; liberalism is what liberals do and vice versa (all of this by the way holds just as much for non-liberals, with the values inverted). Thus, contemporary liberalism becomes a matter of semiotics, rather than political philosophy.

This is not itself so remarkable: most people of whatever ideological stripe hold relatively loose interpretations of their chosen politico-philosophical commitments. Back in the days when “new atheism” was (inexplicably) a thing, it was a staple of their rhetoric to demonstrate how little professed Christians actually knew of scripture. In a much more serious register, the method of Socratic dialectic demonstrated through dialogue after dialogue how citizens of the most sophisticated democracy that ever was were still unable to give valid accounts of their beliefs.

But this hollowness of the liberal idea is salient for two particular reasons. First, as noted above, a significant and influential fraction of its adherents are self-described knowledge-workers—what Christopher Lasch would have called the “thinking classes”; their vocations are a matter not of physical labor but of pushing words and/or numbers around. So, their inability to give a coherent account of what they hold true is more noteworthy than it might be for a drywaller.[3]

Second, political crises have a way of bringing matters to a head; the “what is to be done” question becomes inescapable, and all concerned will either look to liberalism to provide some evaluative framework for the range of available responses, or look to it subsequently to provide post facto justifications for their decisions.

Both factors are well present in Ottawa. The protests (or occupation, if one prefers) triggered the invocation of (remarkably far-reaching) Emergency Powers by the Trudeau government, and this decision was applauded, or at least rationalized, by self-proclaimed liberals throughout Canada and elsewhere. Though notionally subject to parliamentary and judicial review, these powers allow state power at multiple levels to arrest citizens without warrants, restrict movement, seize property, freeze liquid assets, and more.

While many have focused on procedural issues—Does the Prime Minister have constitutional authority to enact these measures? Does the underlying crisis warrant such a response? And so on—the more interesting question to my mind is: How does this square with liberalism?

I say this because that same question lies behind every argument, every justification, every rationalization. It is the inescapable grund for us liberal democrats. To understand this, one has to think about how we argue today. The first-order question for us is not whether decisions are wise or prudent but whether they are legitimate—that is to say, whether we understand our political representative(s) to have the authority, the right to act as they do.

And this is not merely the effect of some latter-day trend in modern democratic societies; it is baked into the very model of indirect, representative government. As Harvey Mansfield put it:

[T]he people must ask political questions in an indirect form. The direct political question is whether the law or the command by an officer of the law that a citizen encounters is decent, good or useful. Instead of this question, or before it, citizens under representative government must ask whether the law or the command is truly representative, that is, whether in some manner it comes from themselves.

This is both the paramount strength and weakness of our way of government. One of the reasons that developed modern democracies are less tumultuous than their ancient counterparts is that so many object-level matters of contestation are simply off the table. You cannot have 200 million—or even 20 million—people debating over whether or not to execute the country’s successful generals for failing to collect the bodies of dead soldiers.

By systematically delegating political authority, an entire landscape of potential controversies is declared off-limits. The result, however, is that we concentrate our energies on the otherwise second-order question of whether our delegates are in fact representative—both in the national sense (are they like us?) and the ideological sense (do they think like us?). Can they, above all, be reasonably understood to speak for the people?

The flip side to this, meanwhile, is that when outside challenges to political authority are mounted, the overriding question is not Do They Have a Point? but rather Do They Speak With an Authentic Popular Voice?

Consequently, when the convoy arrived in Ottawa, the government’s first rhetorical response was not to argue that in fact the policies put into place surrounding vaccine mandates, border controls, testing, and so forth were the correct ones (and, correspondingly, that the truckers’ various demands were medically unsound, imprudent, etc.). It was rather to insist that the protestors were racist, white supremacists, homophobic, extremist, and so on.

That is to say, from the government’s standpoint, the protestors not only did not represent the people of Canada (a status reserved for the government), but in their political or ideological extremism they had in important ways removed from themselves from the circle of those who could themselves claim representation! The purpose was not to argue against them on the merits but to delegitimize them.

And that rhetorical approach was hardly limited to official government spokespersons; it was expressed by any number of sympathetic commentators who felt political kinship with the government and against the protestors (this piece captures this view as well as any).

In sum, the question of whether the government’s response was just in the sense of rightly responding to what the situation demanded is arbitraged into whether it was just in the sense of representing the authentic will of the people against an illegitimate challenge.[4] But this side-steps (probably intentionally) the unpleasant reality of just what the government is in fact doing and how well it coheres with our understanding of liberalism as practice.

Of course, facing the problem squarely, as Adrian Vermeule does, doesn’t get us very far either:

This is more or less the integralist response in a nutshell, but it is hardly a criticism; integralists are just one of many factions who are perfectly comfortable with direct applications of state power, provided that they only held the whip hand.

In the end, I suspect the container of liberalism will continue to leak its contents, but the very last thing to go will be adherence to state power. And, to be fair, this is not entirely incongruent with what liberalism might mean:

POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.

That’s John Locke, by the way, not Hobbes or Machiavelli.[5] The public good, broadly-defined, justifies quite a lot more than one might think, particularly in the absence of a more philosophically robust definition of just what it entails. Given a prima facie claim to represent the people, a government can do a quite a lot of damage without losing its Official Liberal Status.

All this is necessarily troubling (or should be) for liberals in both the narrow and the broad sense of the term. But I think more troubling still is this: the inability to articulate a substantive account of the public good beyond self-preservation, in conjunction with the growing distance of bureaucratic institutions and the class that staffs them from the larger mass of people they notionally represent, will only continue to hollow out the classically liberal justifications for state power.

Contra the declinist crowd, I think it unlikely that this will result in a weakening of centralized power—at least in the near term—but the opposite. While nearly all states will continue to make rhetorical appeals to the people they represent—just look at China!—their actual decisions will emanate from within the ranks of functionaries and according to the logic of institutional power.

What we will see then, if this continues, is a convergence of state forms toward an ever-closer realization of the ideal-typical Leviathan.[6] That this too is liberalism of a sort may give some indication of the scope of our predicament.

  1. This was more or less a real guy, btw—but in the real world he was governor of Texas, not Mississippi. ↩︎

  2. Yes, that Socrates ↩︎

  3. N.B. this is in no way intended as a slur on drywallers, who are objectively more useful that 99% of academics, journalists, etc. ↩︎

  4. Yes, I am aware of the Schmittian overtones here, but I am frankly tired of hearing about him. ↩︎

  5. Thanks to Dan Schillinger for reminding of that quotation ↩︎

  6. Score one for Monsieur Kojève! ↩︎