Localism and the Possibility of Self-Rule: Part 4

Series Overview

The concept of limited government seemingly takes self-rule from the realm of the abstract and makes it the basis of a functional society. But, though it precludes the possibility of a central authority imbued with broad, sweeping powers, limited government is not synonymous to self-rule. The devolution of power that necessarily occurs as a result of the truncation of federal authorities might theoretically place power in the hands of individuals, but it is functionally exercised through institutions, be they state and local government agencies, or, more often, social institutions.

These institutions serve as interest aggregators, taking on a role nearly synonymous to those played by political parties: they organize the mass around commonalities and become a tool for establishing social morays. But, just as political parties run afoul of their purposes through the process of collectivization inevitable to the life cycle of intermediary bodies, so too can social institutions attain a level of power and influence disproportionate to their voice when measured as a portion of the greater communal whole. While the public sphere in which government resides is bounded, private actors have a much greater range of movement, and therefore social institutions possess as much potential to do damage to self-sovereignty as does the tyranny of government proper.

(For Part 1, go here. For Part 2, go here. For Part 3, go here.)


A traditional view of American politics supports the view that it is government that is bounded, while individuals, though they defer to the supremacy of the federal law in those areas where it has jurisdiction, are free to pursue life in whatever manner they deem appropriate. As the people are the ultimate font of political power, the law is ultimately a tool for their disposal: it exists primarily to protect individual liberties. When one man runs afoul of another’ liberty, he must submit himself to judicial authority. Otherwise, he is largely free to act in accordance with the dictates of his own discretion.

Communities, according to this logic, are largely self-regulating: man’s self-interest is a regulator which keeps him aboveboard. One does not alienate one’s neighbors when they provide essential goods and services for life. Man is like a spider; in going about his life, the connections he forms, whether they be in aid of business or pleasure, weave a vast web. But unlike a genuine arachnid, man is entangled in his own web, and the interlocking webs of others with whom he forms the partnerships that help him attain the goods he needs to survive and to thrive.

Competing needs, and the recognition that one at least needs passivity between oneself and one’s neighbors, are the invisible engine of society. It runs only so long as self-interest is the abiding law of communities. Selfishness keeps men honest: the need to live, and, even more, to live well, assures rationality wins out. Reason dictates that long-term survival be the gauge of man’s interactions, severely lessening the short-term emotional satisfaction that may come with casually disregarding the rights of others.

It is not just communities that are governed by the checks and balances men’s disparate needs place upon the self: American government models this system. James Madison, who spurned many codified protectionist measures to hold government systems in check, did so because he realized natural laws already achieved this end. In Federalist 51, echoing sentiments expressed in Federalist 10 about the benefits derived from a vibrant “multiplicity of factions”, Madison stated:

“This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other—that the private interests of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”

Thus, we can see that the structure of American government institutions uses natural law as a blueprint, that it reflects the patterns that arise in localities.

Disregarding Tocqueville

This is crucial to understanding contemporary social realities. From Madison, it is clear that men in private life are to be left free and ungoverned, for they will govern themselves. But they will do so in accordance with the dictates of their conscience and their reason.

Tocqueville, on the other hand, feared individualism as a corrosive agent of the social fabric. He praised American “associations”, or various types of social institutions, because they drew individuals from the sphere of their private interests.

There is a very key distinction between the Madisonian vision and Tocqueville’s. Natural law drives men to seek partnerships and form groups that align with personal interest. They become an extension of the self, for they serve some aim of the individuals, whether it be one related to business or simply a desire for companionship with those with similar values or interests. In participating in the community, the individual is never divorced from the self. To re-enforce Madison’s idea: private interest is always a damper upon the public. Social institutions are therefore held in check by larger private interests.

Not so with Tocqueville’s vision. Rather, social institutions represent a new kind of force imposed over the individual. Tocqueville praised social institutions because they mitigated what he saw as the insular sphere of private affairs. In Democracy in America, he observed: “As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow-men as he had at first imagined, and that, in order to obtain their support, he must often lend them his own co-operation.”

Under Tocqueville’s system, man is subservient to social institutions. He must subvert himself to the greater “public good.”

Tocqueville’s social epistemology is one in effect today. It is the idea that social groups have value that gives them authority to run roughshod over individual rights. Social advocacy is married to the collectivistic sentiments, to faux ideas about meaning being found through inclusion and diversity.

The great irony of such sentiment is that it invalidates the only form of diversity that has any societal value: intellectual diversity.

When the individual is left free of any social coercion to pursue his or her inclinations, a great deal of diverse coalitions are formed, and they are formed on the basis of something with a great deal more concrete meaning than diversity, which only has meaning in reference to the demographics of a given area. The pluralism that emerges from a society where individuals are left free to pursue interest results in value-based transactions. This means one individual seeks out another not just on the basis of a need requiring fulfillment, but because they recognize something of the value they desire in the abilities of another. They seek out relationships on this basis.

This is impossible under a system where social institutions are allowed to coerce individuals into participation. Under this system, everyone must conform to the dominant ideology, in the name of cohesion and inclusion. Any who disagree must face ostracism or evince belief in the dominant ideology, which does nothing to further it, but rather erodes it.

Tocqueville is not in favor of tyranny; he believes in the morality of a free society. However, by de-emphasizing the individual as sovereign in private affairs, he unwittingly promotes a form of social tyranny that mirrors the despotic government he eschews. Social institutions adopt the modes of despotic control evinced by kings.

Conclusions: Individual Supremacy

Life is individualistic: humanity has no over-soul, no hive mind, no collective conscience. There is danger in giving over a monopoly on power to one man, but just as much danger in giving it to private institutions that place themselves above man. For social institutions, when taken out of the context of natural law, where the pluralistic competition between different sets of needs holds individuals in check, adopt the constitution of a singular being. They become invested with a will and enervated by the passion of their members. But, as they are given authority over and above individuals, and divorced from the corporeal limitations men labor under, they gain a degree of power disproportionate to what they are actually owed. Without checks and balances, the worst impulses of men are married to unbound social authority, and tyranny occurs.

Social tyranny exists in exactly the same way as does political tyranny. If man is to be free, it is impossible for social institutions to have moral authority to act in a manner that promotes certain behaviors and ostracizes others. Self-rule can only occur when individuals are free to make decisions for themselves, and bear the benefits or ills that come from other sovereign individuals exerting their sovereignty.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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