For the quick reader, at the bottom of the post, find a summary of the points I am trying to make below.
In a two part post, Arnold Kling draws attention to an interesting series of essays by George H. Smith on the classical liberal polymath Herbert Spencer: From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer.
When liberals reject politics and the state (the ultimate enforcer of politics), I would argue, they are bound to get caught in a contradiction in that liberty demands the possibility of mass political participation.
Quite in that vein, the classical liberal, Herbert Spencer, worried about broad political participation, despairing of the prospect that political freedom given to the immature masses was likely to destroy freedom. On account of this worry, Herbert Spencer increasingly turned from optimism to pessimism.
The Spencerian pattern is quite common among libertarians, who lacking any confidence in the political processes of a free society, condemn themselves to "hibernating in a self-made winter of discontent," as I put it in On the Importance of Politics.
Also, I have a comment on the second part of Kling's George Smith on Herbert Spencer, continued, where I argue that the strong presumption against politics and the state in classical liberals and libertarians carries the risk of introducing an element of alarming illiberalism into liberalism, as indeed appears to be very much the case in Herbert Spencer:
Do I detect a family resemblance?
Michael Oakeshott once spoke of Hayek’s “plan to resist all planning”.
I am not sure, whether Oakeshott would endorse my interpretation of his phrase, but I read his observation as pointing to an illiberalism within liberalism (European meaning).
Denying the right of political participation by all citizens, strikes me as highly illiberal.
Usually liberals who argue in this vein do not sufficiently appreciate that markets are not an alternative to a political order (the one necessitated by freedom being of a democratic nature), but depend on an extra-market framework largely implemented, enforced, and defended by political action.
You cannot have liberty without an open-ended political competition. But that competition is feared by liberals because it often brings forth as winners those who they disagree with.
In the face of (permanent) defeat, for the liberal, it is at least psychologically comforting to refer back to the false “economistic” assumption that “dirty politics” would not be required if only one could have a liberal world as he conceives it.
From this biased perspective, democracy appears to be an unpleasant, even dangerous redundancy. Because democracy destroys the liberal’s illusion that his is a self-contained, non-contradictory world view and as such naturally resistant to challenges of indeterminacy, i.e. outcomes of human interaction in a free world that may differ from the liberal’s expectations and preferences.
“How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.”
(1991, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7.)
In the first part Herbert Spencer on Exit and Voice, Arnold Kling reflects on Spencer's preference for "exit" (independence/turning away from government) over "voice" (political participation, democracy, turning toward the state), apparently doubting the sense and feasibility of (attempting) a life without substantial government in the contemporary world. In my comment, I give an account of my theory of the state, in nuce:
As for explaining and justifying government, I find it useful to consider:
Violence is the fundamental problem of human association.
Once a community is wealthy enough to sustain specialists, there will emerge, within the unfolding division of labour, specialists in violence and governance.
There will always be a competition for “structures of maximal power”, which will tend to create oligopolistic (coalition of rulers) or monopolistic outcomes (state monopoly on violence) which reduce inefficient levels of violence, at least in the long run.
Probably, the biggest plus of government (there are many others) is the immeasurably large difference between a state of anarchy and a state of being protected from anarchy – the transition from roving bandits (anarchy) to stationary bandits (state), in Olson’s terminology.
Also, a state can not be arbitrarily destructive; if state structures are to face good chances of survival they will evolve to enhance the state’s own material substratum, foster productivity, and as precondition of this, peace and other expedients supporting productivity in the populace.
Anarchy remains on a retarded level of development, where violence and personal security have not yet reached the stage of being dealt with within an extended division of labour.
In an anarchic environment, violence, trust-building, and governance are still left to inefficient producers. Anarchy is unsustainable because it is brutally inefficient, and fortunately humankind has worked out more efficient social technologies: such as the modern state, or more generally “structures of maximal power”, in my terminology.
Structures of maximal power are growths of long standing, they are fundamentally ambiguous and capable of severe regression – but they are the best we have.
The founding fathers understood wisely that it is the liberal’s task to understand and improve these structures by “reflection and choice”.
The state is an indispensable precondition of freedom, and endeavouring to improve its structure by “reflection and choice”, that is by conscious design is not necessarily the same as statist ambitions at building and micromanaging the system as a whole and in any conceivable detail.
The big tragedy of the forces of liberty is that they have given up the battle for the state.
SUMMARY: Natural inequality among human beings, the need to manage violence in and between groups and communities, the intrinsically hierarchical nature of power and other factors turn man into a political animal naturally engaged in political competition which includes the struggle for structures of maximal power which, in turn, culminates in the evolution of the modern state. Politics and the state are a natural growth of long standing, while ambivalent and capable of regression they are nonetheless indispensable. Liberty changes the conditions of politics and the state. Liberty fosters, indeed requires, the possibility of mass participation in the political processes, which involvement cannot be curtailed without curtailing liberty herself. Democratic institutions and procedures (which ought not to be reduced to the act of election alone) tend to best fulfil the requirements of political participation in a free society. Liberals who reject politics and the state thus take a position that is incompatible with the basic principles of liberty. Ultimately, they are not willing to face up to the fact that a free society is an open-ended project in which liberal principles and prospects must prove themselves in a competition involving powerful rival views. This is a natural and necessary condition of liberty, whose future is impossible to predict.