Filed under “I thought this was obvious but apparently we have to talk about it explicitly.”
I am a person who cares about freedom, as a terminal or close-to-terminal value, a lot. Like, a lot. Like, more than most people. Personally and politically.
(Snarling and bristling and getting reflexively hostile whenever anyone tells me what to do, under basically any circumstances, no matter how allegedly-legitimate his authority. Being drawn to entrepreneurship and similar life paths, for which I am temperamentally unsuited in all sorts of obvious ways, just because of the joy I get from not being constrained by the will of any overseer. Making major life sacrifices for the sake of getting to do exactly what I want, even when I have basically no clue what it is that I want. Spending my childhood fantasizing about being an extortionist necromancer on the grounds that he could follow his own dreams with no restrictions.)
(The only actual limitations I wish to put on anyone else are standard classical-liberal “your fist’s space ends where my face begins” sorts of things, and for this purpose I do not have an expansive definition of “my face.” As far as I’m concerned, if you want to poison yourself with meth or cocaine or heroin, you should not be prevented from doing so. Same thing if you want to dance naked down Broadway. Or if you want to decorate your house with swastikas and flaming crosses. Or if you want to go to bed with your sister, or a paying client, or a gay duck. Or if you want to kill yourself. Or, indeed, if you want to advocate the overthrow of my utopian government.)
I am also, in political terms, a moderately-hardcore statist authoritarian. I favor the existence of a central governing body with as much coercive power over its subjects as it can possibly be given.
The second thing is not true in spite of the first thing. The second thing is true because of the first thing. If I didn’t think freedom were so important, I would not be so enthusiastic about building a nigh-omnipotent superpower to defend it.
The short explanation of my reasoning goes as follows: The alleged distinction between “negative liberty” and “positive liberty,” so beloved by libertarian philosophers, is a giant pile of horseshit. Freedom has only one real meaning: being able to do the thing you want to do. If something is preventing you from doing that, you’re not free. It doesn’t matter what entity it is that’s standing in your way. The world is absolutely full of people and things that will take away your freedom. And the Leviathan, for a very low cost, can do a pretty good job of stopping them.
I am not afraid of the God-Emperor who holds the earth in his iron grip.
…OK, that’s a lie. I am, in fact, totally afraid of that guy. He can decide to burn the books and bury the scholars. He can become a Hitler or a Stalin or a Pol Pot. Even without going to quite such insane lengths, he can declare an ill-advised unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, and send me off to die pointlessly. Or just prevent me from getting life-saving medicine because it’s bureaucratically easier to “play it safe” with drug trials. Central authorities are damn scary.
But — all that said — I’m actually pretty confident that, with decent institutional engineering, we can find ways to ensure that the God-Emperor’s power is mostly used for good. There’s only one of him, after all; we can employ a bunch of high-cost technologies and techniques to keep a handle on him. We can have a super-duper-rigorous selection process for him. We can have a super-duper-rigorous selection process for his advisors, and take pains to give him the very best expert support in every field. We can ensure that he’s always in the public eye, so that every decision he makes will be subject to extensive analysis and feedback from the entire world, and so that any malfeasance will be instantly known to everyone. We can…do lots of things that I haven’t even begun to consider, I’m sure, because I’m not any kind of institutional engineer.
And even if all that stuff totally fails, even if we’re just talking about an unrestrained run-of-the-mill tyrant, we can take some comfort in the fact that a generic tyrant’s incentives are mostly aligned with those of his subjects. Unless you have the bad luck to be ruled by a lunatic…and lunatics make up a much-greater-than-chance proportion of the tyrant population, to be sure, but still a relatively small one…your God-Emperor has no especial reason to make your life difficult, under the majority of circumstances. He’s a busy man, and he’s got vastly bigger fish to fry; contra Casey and Andy, the absolute sovereign is not going to lie on your couch bossing you around. Assuming you pay your taxes on time and refrain from getting involved with any rebellions, the odds are pretty good that he’ll just leave you alone. And his policies, while they’re all too likely to be harmfully misguided, will usually be at least intended to do the right thing. The God-Emperor wants a stable and smoothly-running domain, and he wants to polish up his legacy for the history books. Those things are not too divergent from the things you’d want him to want.
I am much less sanguine about the local authorities, the barons / city councilmen / tribal chieftains / what-have-you. Those guys are just as capable of being lunatics as any God-Emperor, and given free rein, they’re capable of wreaking tremendous harm on their subjects. More importantly, though, they’re liable to make things pretty terrible even when they’re perfectly sane and ordinary. They’re not carefully selected or trained, and they’re not given anything particularly useful in the way of expert support, and most of the time they’re not being closely watched. Their decisions are often just farcically bad, to a degree that few God-Emperors could get away with, and those decisions often stand unchallenged because no one with any power to do anything about it has even noticed.
What’s more, a generic baron’s interests are often directly at odds with his subjects’ liberty. He’s not nearly so far removed from them as the God-Emperor is; screwing around with their lives on a micro-level is far more useful to him. It makes sense, too often, for him to send goons to beat his people up and take their stuff. Or to punish them for being insufficiently obedient and respectful in a small-scale personal way. Or to abuse his public authority to support his private business. Worse yet, because he’s necessarily in competition with lots of other dinky tinpot tyrants of approximately his level — in competition for status and influence, if nothing else, and often in direct competition for resources — he is liable to be ensnared by multipolar traps that push him towards bad policy. Free-market enthusiasts sometimes like to imagine competition-between-regimes serving as a force for good in the way that competition-between-businesses usually is, but everything I’ve ever seen suggests that it usually just generates races to the bottom. Each local authority frantically tries to appeal to the most strategically valuable supporters, who tend to be the sort of people interested in restraining other people’s freedom.
(The U.S. federal government is often accused of waste, fraud, and corruption. It’s often guilty of those things, especially the first one; I should know, I work in the belly of the beast. But it is a paragon of institutional excellence compared to the nightmare carnivals that are state- and local-level governments. Most of the terrible laws and budgeting decisions that make U.S. life so dysfunctional, and the vast majority of the corrupt practice, come from the lower-level authorities. Genuine principled libertarians rarely take up the insane cause of “states’ rights” — to their credit — but so-called “limited-government conservatives” do so all the time, and I find it incredibly baffling. The statehouses are where most of the actual tyranny is.)
Unless we’re going to give straight-up anarchy a try…and thereby make ourselves actual literal slaves to the first rich guy in the area who decides to become a warlord…political power is going to have to be held by someone. I would much rather entrust my liberty to the God-Emperor than to the barons, all else being equal.
But, of course, political power is only a tiny fraction of the power that’s at play.
If you’re like the average American, the actual tyrant in your life — the person who does the most to curtail your freedom — is your boss. Your boss’s interest is inextricably bound up with the task of making you spend hours upon hours upon hours, a quarter of your adult life or more, doing things that (all else being equal) you would probably prefer not to do. While you do that, odds are, your boss also exercises coercive control over your speech and your behavior and pretty much every aspect of your existence. It’s a rare God-Emperor who comes anywhere close to exercising that level of oppression over even a tiny fraction of his subjects. But the employment market is a domineering master indeed.
And the children! God, think of the degree to which their liberty is curtailed! Almost every hour of every day, they are told by someone else exactly what they should be doing. Almost everything they ever do is monitored. With narrow exceptions, they cannot procure goods or services for themselves, and are entirely dependent on the largesse of their rulers; they cannot make any life decisions at all without the approval of those same rulers. They are subject to constant, constant attempts at brainwashing and mind-reshaping. If you had to live your own life under such conditions, or anything like them, could you possibly call yourself “free?”
(It goes without saying, of course, that the liberty of prisoners is curtailed in a very similar way.)
This doesn’t even get into the most fundamental and inescapable tyranny of all, which is the tyranny of blind faceless Nature. I cannot fly like a bird, or run with the speed of a cheetah, or perceive numbers with the insight of a Ramanujan — even though I want to do all those things. In all likelihood I will die, someday soon, although I will dearly wish to live. Is that not a limitation on my freedom? Is that not the world placing me in chains and telling me, “No!”
Listen to this next part, because it’s important:
In saying all these things, I am inhabiting the viewpoint of a petulant ten-year-old. I am well aware of that. There are obviously some very, very important differences between the sorts of “tyranny” that I have just described and the conventionally-defined tyranny of a political despot. It is true, and meaningful, that an employee and his boss are in a mutually-agreed-upon contractual relationship rather than a relationship defined by coercive force. It is also true, and meaningful, that our civilization would suffer greatly if bosses were unable to make demands of their subordinates — or if parents were unable to control their children — or if we were unable to restrain and punish those who broke the law. Or, indeed, if the political authorities could not issue edicts and demand that we obey. And the tyranny of nature is, in all likelihood, something to which we must all simply resign ourselves. (Although I applaud those who are actively working to overthrow it.)
As we acknowledge all this, however, it is important not to lose the ten-year-old’s perspective. The ten-year-old is perceiving and reacting to something fundamental. All those things are costs. They are bad. They may be necessary evils, to some extent, but that doesn’t make them not-evil. We want to rid ourselves of them, to the extent that we can do so without bringing greater ills yet down upon our heads.
In many cases, we could already mitigate the petty tyranny to some substantial extent — without loss — if we had the will and the strength. A boss, to participate effectively in the capitalist system of productive exchange, does not actually have to use all his vast power and leverage over his subordinates. A parent can, without harm, afford his child a great deal of self-determination and latitude. Prisons can be relatively liberal and still serve their function.
And the future provides greater promise yet! Many forms of wealth grow cheaper every day (especially in virtual space, which is a wonderland of non-scarce riches); it may be that, someday soon, we will be able to leave our material desperation behind us. We can all be kings and enjoy the vast freedom that comes with such prosperity and security. With the power of our arts, we may even be able to wriggle out of some of Nature’s shackles.
But who will ensure that the grip of the petty tyrants is loosened, to the extent that it reasonably can be? And who will shepherd us towards that bright promising future and all its liberty? The petty tyrants will not care to relinquish any of their power. People with power rarely do.
If there is anyone at all who can help us here…my money’s on the God-Emperor. He is capable of imposing his desires from the top down; he is as resistant to Moloch’s blandishments as anyone can be; and much can be done to align his will with the public good.
This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. There’s a lot to talk about, with a lot of room for productive disagreement, when it comes to powerful central authorities. What is the right way to choose your God-Emperor? Should he actually be a God-Emperor, as opposed to a High Council or a Magnificent Congress or something? And what sorts of policies should he actually propound? What sorts of meddling are desirable, and what sorts are net counterproductive? How much do we want to redistribute things? I have views on all these questions, and at some point I’ll probably spout off on all of them, but that can wait.
Right now, it’s enough to point out that a strong central authority is overall much less scary than the weaker non-central authorities who infest the world. And if there’s anything other than a Leviathan that can bring the lesser monsters to heel, and give us actual freedom…well, I hope someone will tell me about it.
This post was inspired by a discussion of a Florida Senatorial candidate named Augustus Sol Invictus. He is running as a Libertarian, which strikes me as a criminal waste of a name like “Augustus Sol Invictus” — this is, clearly, a guy who should support some kind of extensively imperial project so that he can be its Emperor.