Limits & Liberty

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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34 Responses

  1. Will H. says:

    I thought you might be useful every now and then.
    Sort of split on necessary.
    There’s arguments to be made both ways.Report

  2. tom van dyke says:

    A good limning of the problem, EDK.

    These questions were pondered upon especially 1600-1800, man in “the state of nature.”

    Alone, in the state of nature, man is “naturally free.” On the other hand, he’s a social animal, and so is obliged to live in society. Few of us are genuine hermits—genuinely “free”—and of course anarchy, with no state to coerce order, must depend on the good will and self-control of its individual members.

    But is it man’s nature to behave himself? Certainly not everybody’s nature, as GWashington said,

    Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

    [Note that Washington does concede that certain minds, properly educated, are indeed capable of behaving themselves, thus obviating the whole “can atheists be moral” brouhaha. And we can even attempt to elide the “religious principle” argument, but that means that we can “educate” all minds into behaving themselves, not just those of a peculiar structure.]

    This is not a fact in evidence, and I’m with Washington here that reason and experience [at least mine] forbid me to expect that we can “educate” man out of the need for a state.

    Collective institutions that are separate from government–good. Government–bad.

    This draws separate spheres for “society” and “state,” a position not held by many modern minds, who treat them as one in the same. I think this goes to the nub of your very good essay here. Further, “federalism,” that not each of the several states is identical to the rest, at least in theory opens a door to those “trapped” by their local societies, to find a better place in the sun without having to find another country.

    And of course, in theory at least, a “society” can make needed exceptions in its norms for the individual where a “nation of laws” should not. If there’s one way to respect the individual, it is in the acknowledgment that one size does not fit all. In these heavily abstract and legalistic times, we have lost that fine and gentle touch.Report

  3. “My inclination is to steer toward these voluntary associations and away from the mythology of the rugged individual. More on this later.”

    My inclination is to look at which activities have or might yield to rationalization, and which have not/show no indication they will.Report

  4. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    because the imposition of order is inherently fragile.

    I think this is the crux of the problem. Order can be imposed for a time, but it can not hold forever. To paraphrase a princess from a long time ago, the more tightly you grasp, the more that will slip through your fingers.

    Our government would do better to provide direction, instead of trying to rule. Unfortunately, too many people want government to rule, so as to impose their own will upon others.Report

  5. E.C. Gach says:

    Collective institutions that are separate from government–good. Government–bad.

    This draws separate spheres for “society” and “state,” a position not held by many modern minds, who treat them as one in the same. I think this goes to the nub of your very good essay here.”

    Going off Tom, could you elaborate on what you think distinguishes the “state” from “society”? For instance, if the state were abolished, would “society” then tend towards being a de facto “state,” with a new forces rising to fill the void thus left by “society” to in turn form a new “society”?

    What I’m saying it seems like you can’t have one with out the other (not sure if we disagree on this) but then how does one artificially set a new equilibrium point and say,”well this was the relation of the state to society, but now this will be the new relation of the state to society,” without something else filling the power void left by a deprived “state”?Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Thx for asking, Mr. Gach. Your point is well-taken, furthers the discussion, and brings it back home to the OP.

      You’re quite right that if we were to abolish government, “society” would become the de facto government, and we’re back where we started.

      Let’s enlist sainted Pat Moynihan [attributed]:

      The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.

      I think Moynihan’s “liberal truth” in praise of politics draws most of its poignancy from America’s history on race. The Civil War was politics writ large and ended slavery as an institution, but still, Reconstruction was a failure, and Jim Crow took its place.

      And yes, there was Brown vs. Board finally in 1954, but not until—in my view—1964 and Dirksen’s pivotal speech to break the Dixiecrat filibuster, was the logjam finally broken.

      “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.”

      This is the central truth, I think. And I think those times come culturally first, not politically. And BTW, it’s a devastating speech.

      I try to keep a great distance from current events when discussing these things, since I’ve seen as the rule, not the exception, that the most erudite, thoughtful and civil persons turn into raging fucking maniacs once it goes to Red Team vs. Blue Team.

      Anyway, I submit that government is only successful when it serves and reflects its underlying culture, and I think I’m in with Montesquieu and Tocqueville on that. Edmund Burke, too, I reckon, and I detect Burke in EDK’s OP.

      “Society”—viewed empirically—is admittedly is really just a collection of conventions, and conventions are by definition artificial. But they have the virtue of been through the trial-and-error mill anyway, unlike bright and brilliant “new” concepts on how society should be reinvented, if not man himself.

      As it turned out, France was still France under Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon. Under de Gaulle or Sarkozy, for that matter.

      They’re still fucking French.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to tom van dyke says:

        I think the idea is to keep the state, but to work to limit it in ways that make it much less invasive and much less relevant to the day-to-day goings on of society; to create an organic society that can get along just fine without the state at least until the invading hordes show up. This is also meant as a guiding light. I am a pragmatist. This piece is one of those idealistic pieces – some might call it ideological but I would prefer idealistic. We are a long ways away, both culturally and politically, from a night-watchman state or from any sort of minimilast state. But I see the good steps we’ve made as ones which could lead us in many directions – toward a society of arbitrary laws written by special and powerful interests, where the government is pervasive and has its nose in everyone’s business at all times; or toward a ‘natural society’ as the younger Burke would call it.Report

        • greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          I don’t disagree with this. However once you get to this point we are essentially discussing how to best design western style liberal dem gov that liberals look for. Not that we would agree on some of the details but that is democracy. Some of us think gov should do this or that and some don’t, but that is what we need to continually work out. We’re now talking about running a Good Government, which is the spot most libs exist in.

          To often “idealistic pieces” are read in way that ignores the inherent conflicts of democracy but also suggest one or more groups have their ideas shut out of gov. I’ve been reading your stuff long enough to know thats not where you are coming from but it is a definite weakness of “idealistic pieces.” Democracy is an ideal that largely prevents everybody from getting their ideal society. My guess is that since Libertarian’s have no actual power or a party that has to actually govern, with all the contradictions, compromises and caring about what many people want, they to often slip into focusing on idealistic pieces without considering how to make their beliefs work with others.Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          “…This piece is one of those idealistic pieces…”

          I actually didn’t get that. Seemed pretty pragmatic and left me with lots of blurry edges and tumble weed blowing by…in a good way.Report

        • tom van dyke in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          Indeed, Mr. Kain: This was the “federalist” constitutional plan.

          I think the idea is to keep the state, but to work to limit it in ways that make it much less invasive and much less relevant to the day-to-day goings on of society…

          Day-to-day life was run at the state and local levels, not by Leviathan.

          to create an organic society that can get along just fine without the state at least until the invading hordes show up.



          Your Burke is showing. Sorry to embarrass you on what has lately become a fringe blog.

          Quite right on the “hordes” part too. But I embarrass you further by agreeing. I do apologize, but we non-conformists got to stick together.Report

  6. Francis says:

    ““Collective institutions that are separate from government–good. Government–bad.” What utter nonsense. Last I checked, this was still a democracy; we collectively get the government we ask for. So Kling isn’t complaining so much about government as he is about his fellow citizens. “You suck”, he says. “I want to decide for myself which homeless guy is worthy of medical care.” At some level, Kling is right; people do suck, especially ruthless little SOBs like him.

    So how much of his monthly income does Kling send to the local hospital, anyway?Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Francis says:

      I think turning the ideas presented into a discussion of the characters invoking those ideas is unhelpful at best. This isn’t really about Kling at all. He could be the most generous philanthropist on the face of the earth and still be dead wrong, or he could be a miser and still absolutely correct. I fail to see any relevance in a discussion of his character.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Francis says:

      we collectively get the government we ask for

      Actually, that’s not a really meaningful statement once we start to break it down. Public choice theory has pretty well demonstrated that the aggregation of preferences doesn’t necessarily reflect individual preferences in any meaningful way. And it’s not our fellow citizens’ fault, but just the impossibility of rational aggregation of preferences in a heterogeneous group. Hence the superiority of voluntary associations, which allow people with relatively more homogeneous preferences to cluster together.

      My inclination is to steer toward these voluntary associations and away from the mythology of the rugged individual.

      Quite right, Mr. Kain. That’s my kind of libertarianism, too. Not only is it a view supported by Tocqueville, but by Hayek, and Ostrom as well. If someone prefers to be a rugged individualist, I wish them all luck, but I suspect we’d find that most of them actually are rather deeply enmeshed in overlapping sets of voluntary associations, from family to churches to the Elks to the local farm co-op, etc., etc.Report

  7. greginak says:

    The thing with talking about a stateless society is , other then picturing wandering band of aboriginals i can’t figure out what the hell that looks like. I think Kling is an ideologue and when he presents issues it is absolutely without saying what is lost without a state. My base assumption is that he is knee jerk simplistic government hater without any depth, or complexity but he writes nicely. How do you have a stateless society in an industrialized, globliazed, computerized world. Air pollution? Water pollution? Who protects children from being abused? As nice it sounds to have charity pick up a safety net it never has. From reading many of Mike’s and others comments i’m guessing the excuse for charity never having done all these wonderful things is just to fall back on the evil gov never let them. Well there is no response to just blaming the evil gov for everything bad and for preventing everything good, since its more of a religious argument then anything else.

    Just let charities pick up all the slack from the state sounds nice but the onus is on the believers to prove that works. There just isn’t any proof that is can while there are plenty of examples in this country and others that the state can can provide a system where there is health care, good schools, etc. ( I have worked for a well funded major national charity. We are had our hands full, and lacked many resources, just to deal with homeless teens let along solving any problems.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

      Greg, I think the idea of a stateless society is (at least at the moment) an impossible dream. The state is simply too deeply woven into the burlap sack of society. So we use the idea as a guiding light. We realize that the governments of the world have the capacity to do great good and great harm. We find ways to limit them and replace their good functions with other entities and eradicate their worst functions altogether. We work to decentralize power where we can. We use the federal government to enforce liberty whenever necessary (to undo the harmful precedents of other government actions – think, the Civil Rights Act…). We do not wave a magic wand and say “Poof! No government! All is well!” It is a compass to guide us through a work in progress.Report

      • greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I guess i would reject the separation between state and society. I think they are not only intertwined but can’t exist without each other. States date back about 8000 or so years. The end of humans as solely hunter/gatherers was due to the state that offered distinct advantages and certainly some disadvantages. The weaving of state and society is the way it is. Tragically , i think, the worst manifestations of the state, in a democratic society, are projections of the worst in our citizens. Any German or Swiss state is going to be efficient. Many Americans are just ducky with casual cruelty, violence as a solution to problems, Us and Them thinking and black and white thinking. I tend to think being nosy is a universal trait. Actually Us and Them thinking is pretty damn universal also.Report

  8. D. C. Sessions says:

    I suspect that the concept of “the State” is a distraction from the question of power, its distribution, and its dynamics. Certainly the State is one point where power concentrates but hardly the only, nor even necessarily the greatest. Consider, for instance, plutocracies (*cough*Goldman Sachs*cough*) where the power of the State is subordinated to other powers for their own purposes.

    My own suspicion is that we won’t be able to do away with dangerous concentrations of power; “dangerous” in the sense that they have enough to use it to collect more. That being so, the best solution I have yet seen is to balance powers against each other in some fashion which allows those of us with little to go about our lives in relative freedom.Report

    • D.C. – well yes. Absolutely the crux of the argument is over power. But plutocracies occur typically in places where government is very powerful. Indeed, plutocracies are often a conspiracy of powerful private interests and their cronies in government. The two become indistinguishable. A limited government which did not have the wherewithal to aid and support cronies in private industry (limited, but not necessary weak in this regard) would be more effective than a very strong state that could even more easily enforce the plutocrats who inevitably would capture and make use of it.Report

      • D. C. Sessions in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        The question is, what keeps power from concentrating? I’m being careful here to avoid the “S-word” because (as above) I consider it a distraction.

        Professionally, I do a lot of stability analyses in large-N systems of interacting elements. We actually have mathematical tools for analyzing the stability of such matrices, and even without knowing the details one rule of thumb is that the larger the system the less likely it is to be stable.

        Apply that metaphor to the power relationships in a group of people, and you come to the unremarkable conclusion that small groups (nomadic bands, for instance) are at minimal risk of runaway power aggregation. As the network of interactions grows, the prospects for stability decrease. Applied to a population of billions, all interacting in nonlocal ways, and you again reach the conclusion that there will be runaway power aggregation barring mechanisms to prevent it — and those mechanisms themselves are, of course, an expression (and source) of power.

        If your objective is to give Hattie Carroll a chance to live her life without being the victim of unconstrained power (and that’s certainly my concern) then it’s not terribly productive to restrict your concerns to only some power loci.Report

        • The power to coerce is all that needs to be restricted. When you have competing interests where no one is allowed to physically coerce others, then concentration of power will be frustrated by those who refuse to obey.Report

          • D. C. Sessions in reply to Mike Farmer says:

            Again, restricting “power” to “physical coercion” is an artificial distinction. Power is fungible.

            I don’t need to exert “physical coercion” to threaten your children’s lives — have a look at company towns.Report

            • You can threaten my children, but under the rule of law which is diligently strenghtened by an aware and active public, the threat will be investigated and punished if the intent is real.

              Company town? Can you give me a modern day example?Report

              • D. C. Sessions in reply to Mike Farmer says:

                You can threaten my children, but under the rule of law which is diligently strenghtened by an aware and active public, the threat will be investigated and punished if the intent is real.

                I can threaten them with starvation, to name one possibility. If you owe me money and I so wish, I can ruin your credit, make your employment unlikely, deprive your family of a place to live and food to eat.

                To counter that threat, you fall upon another source of power greater than mine: “the rule of law which is diligently strenghtened by an aware and active public” and at that point we are not in disagreement — but the price has been a great deal of freedom on my part.Report

  9. Francis says:

    I see. The great answer is to persuade the State to not exercise its powers.

    Look, I understand that the great libertarian fantasy is that everyone will become just like them, and so the State will then wither up and blow away, but that vision has even less chance of becoming real than Karl Marx’s utopian Communism. I have family in Montana; that is a State that governs relatively lightly compared to California, but it also has a tiny fraction of the population and economy. And for years the Legislature was dominated by mining interests until the damage that the mines did to the environment got so bad that the voters turned against them. The damage caused by mining is literally irreversible; that is a direct result of a weak State captured by powerful economic interests. Do you think that somehow the damage would be less had the State regulated even less? How?

    Humans have the power to catch all the fish in the sea, to contaminate water supplies for whole watersheds in search of minerals and natural gas, to pollute soils and the air in ways that will endure for generations, to change the very climate we rely on, to wage war across continents, to ruin the finances of entire countries. And you guys think that the answer is to persuade voters to have less State?

    The State that we have is all that stands between us and even greater environmental and fiscal ruination. It may not be much, and it may often be on the side of the powerful, but it’s really all we’ve got. Voluntary associations can serve any number of important societal goals, but they don’t keep drinking water clean or pay the costs of hospitals providing services to all the poor.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Francis says:

      “The State that we have is all that stands between us and even greater environmental and fiscal ruination.”

      You assume that “The State” is made up of people just like you.Report

  10. D. C. Sessions says:

    You assume that “The State” is made up of people just like you.

    I don’t see how you read the example of Montana that way.Report