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.


On any point of the partisan spectrum, one can find plenty of hand wringing doom merchants, individuals who see in every action taken by a political agent with whom they disagree the specter of iron vice of dictatorial government slowly squeezing the life from the body politic. But while Americans of all stripes are attuned to the danger of government-run-afoul, few are as hawk-eyed when it comes to social tyranny.

Social activism is increasingly in vogue, both in and out of politics. This might seem a natural outgrowth of the correlation between a nation rooted in democratic sensibilities and the logical emphasis this places on individual actors.

The sole font of legitimate government power is the will of the people; it ought to follow that self-sovereignty is the baseline by which all public ethics and morality is judged: what protects individuals, regardless of their standing in relation to minority and majority factions formed around various interests, should translate as “good”, while that which erodes individual ability to exercise will should translate as “bad.”

Bizarrely, however, the idea governing public action—that the majority ought to carry the day—frequently transfers over to private interactions. The individual is not absolutely self-sovereign, in part because of the positive role attributed to institutions. These act like a great damper upon society. The intricate system of checks and balances that restrains the federal government reflects observations of human nature: interest helps hold society in check. When one is dependent upon one’s neighbor for survival, whether this comes in the form of a service provided by said neighbor (say, he’s the local dairy farmer) or in the form of pooled strength used to ward off would-be aggressors, one is less likely to indulge in rash behavior. Alienating those upon whom one’s security depends violates the most primal of human instincts: survival.

The structure of American government mimics these principles, which ultimately draw from natural law. Implicit in this theory, however, is the assumption that local communities contain organized interest groups whose presence holds the baser instincts of man’s nature in check and renders federal protectionism largely irrelevant.

Interest groups, which most frequently take the form of various institutions—civic organizations, houses of worship, arts communities, etc.—might serve an important social role, but they are intermediary bodies. And intermediary bodies tend to truncate the individual.

Thus, the concept of self-sovereignty finds itself in a bind: the individual, though granted supreme political power, still finds itself subservient to intermediary bodies, even in localities. To be sure, the giving to any individual of any influence that extends beyond that which is in the immediate power and sole effort of said individual opens the door to tyranny of the minority. And this in itself is a threat to self-sovereignty. But placing too many restrictions upon the individual and reducing the self to a subordinate or passive role in personal affairs also threatens self-sovereignty.

Perhaps even more alarming, while there are many safeguards against despotism in government, society is more organic. There are fewer guardrails as a result of the laxity and self-regulation inherent to private spheres. Latent dangers to individual liberty may lurk in the very sphere seemingly most conducive to their propagation. Social institutions have a tendency to promote what is held in common and use this as a cudgel to enforce a uniformity that is conducive to the stability of the standing order, thus mimicking certain strains of despotic political power.

On its face, it seems the system designed to protect self-sovereignty might also be oriented to preclude more rugged strains of individualism. An examination into some of the more influential texts upon American sociopolitical culture seem to support this conclusion: the abiding assumption of social contract theorists is that decentralized power is given over to self-regulating institutions, not primarily to individuals. This leaves one to wonder: is a model of self-sovereignty that promotes autonomy simply antithetical to free society as we understand it? And, if so, where does that leave the individualist?

In the next installment: The Social Contract According to Locke

What does the social contract theory which influenced the Founders say about the relationship between individuals and society? Are institutions or individuals championed?

Read next:
Locke and the Individual

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