Monday, August 2, 2010

Individual rights and state privilege

Boyes refers to Tucker's collection of essays that outline the dichotomy between liberty, theindividual sphere of thought and action protected from coercion, and the state.

Tucker also recognizes the consequences of a free society supported by civil institutions - the creativity, innovation and exploration of a liberal society generates benefits that enhance opportunity and choice.

If market orders carry such powerful benefits, what leads then to an expansive state, one which effectively curtails then limits the market order and the benefits that are inherent to emergent, evolutionary orders?

As I near the end of deTocqueville, I think he identifies part of the process that leads to the false notion of state security. Hayek calls this a false individualism.

In the final book of volume 2 of Democracy in America (chapter 2) deTocqueville links egalitarianism with the democratic process. As the notion of egalitarianism becomes more and more entrenched in the minds of the masses there appears to be an inevitable evolution in public opinion toward statism.

As the condition of men becomes more equal among a people, individuals seem of less importance, and society of greater dimensions; or rather every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, nothing stands conspicuous but the great and imposing image of the people at large. This naturally gives the men of democratic periods a lofty opinion of the privileges of society, and a very humble notion of the rights of individuals; they are ready to admit that the interests of the former are everything and those of the latter nothing. (Book 4 chapter 2 - page 831 of the Bantam Classic edition)

Writing in 1835 of his 1830-1 visit to the United States, deTocqueville captures a process that we see writ large today. The misplaced confidence in egalitarianism as a virtue and goal for behavior leads to confidence in the state and a value on state (society or people at large - this mass is ultimately the state) knowledge, action and purpose. Further individual rights are willingly sacrificed to the privileges of society (the state).

deTocqueville goes on

They are willing to acknowledge that the power which represents the community has far more information and wisdom than any of the members of the community; and that it is the duty, as well as the right, of that power to guide as well as govern each private citizen. (p. 831)

This 1835 analysis informs the process that we see today. Tucker's Bourbon for Breakfast, Hayek's Use of Knowledge in Society and Economics and Knowledge and the classical liberal school of thought argue the opposite - individuals in society have far more information and wisdom that does society. But this egalitarianism has been internalized to such an extent that today any view that opposes the notion that assumes it is the duty and right of the state to guide and govern society is dismissed out of hand. This dismissal comes not only from public intellectuals such as a Paul Krugman or a Noam Chomsky but also though the intellegensia that dissiminates and reinforces statism - writers for the New York Times, Sean Penn, or Charlie Rangel suggest the breadth and depth of media and "intellectual" commitment to a notion of philosophy that de Tocqueville identified after his travel through early 19th century America.

Given the path dependence that results from emergent and evolutionary informal institutions - the beliefs, conventions and norms that shape society, it seems obvious that, to the extent that statism is rooted in egalitarianism and majority domination, future attempts to restore a civil society based upon classical liberal principles will face both short and long term challenges. These challenges make for an important and consequential discussion.

The Mises Institute set of online courses represent an important beginning to anticipate attempts to restore civil society. Tom Woods' Sept, online course in the New Deal (see blog posting last month) is an example of the efforts that can constructively lay the foundation for a return to civility. By understanding the process that deTocqueville articulates individuals can reflect on this tradeoff between individual rights and state privilege.

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