As we approach the end of this century, and indeed of a millennium, there is more than the usual tendency to reflect on things human and divine. One thing we should ponder is that the 20th century, often praised as the most enlightened, progressive, and humane period in history, has in fact been the most barbarous. World War I resulted in over eight million battle deaths (more than were killed in the two preceding centuries of “civilized” warfare in Europe). World War II confounded the distinction between soldiers and civilians, yielding over 50 million deaths. But worse than this would be the number of people killed by their own governments in the name of global ideologies of universal human emancipation. In his important book Death by Government, R.J. Rummel estimates that the Soviets alone killed some 62 million people under their jurisdiction. From 1900 until today, nearly four times as many people have been killed by their own governments as have been killed in all wars, foreign and domestic.
This destruction would not have been possible without the unprecedented concentration of power available to modern states. Had Hitler and Stalin been 18th-century monarchs, they could not have murdered millions because they would not have had the authority to mobilize the necessary resources. They would have been hedged in by powerful independent social authorities (the Church, the nobility, and provincial powers) whose authority, in their sphere, was as good as the monarchs’ and who could be expected to resist. The czar, for example, from 1825 to 1905 executed an average of only 17 people a year. With the collapse of the monarchy and all independent social authorities, large-scale corporate resistance vanished, and Lenin and Stalin could murder millions.
The French Revolution gave birth to the first truly modern state. The storming of the Bastille revealed only seven inmates, none of whom were political prisoners. The king, who was willing to become a constitutional monarch and who refused to use force, was executed; the nobility, clergy, provincial authorities, and an independent judiciary were eliminated. The French republic, in the name of the “rights of man,” seized half a million political prisoners. Of these, 17,000 were executed with trial; 12,000 without trial; and many died in prison. The republic, for the first time in European history, ordered universal male conscription. Whereas the armies of the great monarchies had hovered around 190,000, the French republic, overnight, placed a million men in the field. By the end of Napoleon’s reign, the republic had conscripted some three million troops. Other European states imitated the French republic. As a result of European imperialism, world wars, and global capitalism, most of the world was hammered into the form of the modern state.
Universalist liberalism views the destruction carried out in the 20th century as the result of illiberal forms of government. What is overlooked is that liberalism itself first legitimated the destruction of independent social authorities, transforming peoples into masses and concentrating power to the center. The French republic was the first modern state, the first government legitimated by liberal ideology, and the first totalitarian regime.
The most important war of the 20th century was World War I; World War II and the Cold War were simply its unresolved aftermath. The nations that fought this war all viewed themselves as liberal and progressive constitutional monarchies or republics. For a century, these would-be liberal regimes had been concentrating power to the center. By 1914, this concentration had reached a critical mass and exploded into a war that shattered the social fabric of Europe. Nazism and communism did not arise from a vacuum, but were the result of the spectacular destruction carried out by progressive liberal regimes. Enlightened German liberals had long worked to crush the small independent principalities and free cities of Germany into a German superstate. Hitler did not create the concentration of power he put to such bad effect; he found it ready-made —the work of Bismarck and Weimar liberalism. He simply augmented it and put it to his own purposes.
Why is a modern state disposed to destroy the corporate liberty of independent social authorities and concentrate power to the center? And why is this destruction perceived as morally legitimate? The answer was given in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, which frames the first and most profound theory of the modern state. Hobbes pictures mankind as an aggregate of egoists in a state of nature without government, each pursuing his own power and glory without restraint. Since this is a self-defeating condition of constant conflict, rational egoists compact with one another to form a government for the sake of peace and stability. The sole end of the Hobbesian state is to maximize the individual’s autonomy.
All modern political theorizing takes its bearing from the Hobbesian vision of autonomy or choice-making as the end of the state. This is as true of Marxism as of liberalism. Liberals hold that private property and the rule of law are sufficient to maximize autonomy. Marxists deny this, pointing out that liberalism yields inequalities in the form of class domination, which maximizes autonomy for the few at the expense of the workers. And Marx did Hobbes one better by declaring that, in a classless society, there would be no class conflict, and so no need for government at all. The elevation of autonomy would come to be known as the Enlightenment. There would, of course, be disagreements about the precise character of autonomy and its conditions, quarrels about “positive” and “negative” liberty. Locke, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Godwin, Nietzsche, and Sartre would theorize it differently, but all agreed that autonomy is the purpose of the modern state. Marx was right when he called Hobbes the father of us all.
No one can fail to feel the pull of this philosophical defense of the individual’s autonomy. But is choice-making the highest good? To think so is to overlook the social nature of man — the disposition of human beings to pursue some vision of the human good in community with others across generations. It ignores the importance of culture as a framework for autonomy. As T.S. Eliot said, culture is that which makes life worth living. Autonomy presupposes a cultural background without which choice-making is meaningless. A culture links generations together and is structured not by autonomy but by involuntary subordination and deference to authority. I did not choose my parents, nor my native language, nor the loyalties and duties within my culture. These forms of involuntary subordination constitute the framework, if not the whole substance, of what I am. Autonomy, to be sure, is a good to be pursued, but it is a good constrained by the prior good of a whole way of life binding generations.
Since all forms of Enlightenment theorizing are hostile to the idea of involuntary subordination, they either ignore the priority of culture to autonomy or, in more radical forms, positively deny it. John Rawls teaches that the state must be neutral in respect to the good. Its sole task is to enforce those rights necessary for the individual’s autonomy. The corporate liberties and rights of social authorities which are necessary to protect and cultivate a valuable way of life are entirely eliminated. The result is that any substantial morality comprehending a whole way of life is legally disestablished from the public realm and placed in the private feelings of individuals, who eventually become an aggregate of strangers. The moral nihilism prevalent in America today is not the triumph of philosophical arguments subverting moral standards, to be countered by reading The Book of Virtues; it is a social condition created by the legal disestablishment of morality by liberalism.
Just how firmly established this cultural and moral nihilism is can be measured by considering the popular dictum that America is not like other countries: It is an idea; a set of abstract rights; the first universal nation; or, as Lincoln put it, an association of people dedicated to a “proposition.” This dictum is proudly but foolishly celebrated as showing the rationalist superiority of an American rights-based polity over other countries. It is boldly proclaimed by leaders of both parties, and it is taught in the public schools as a kind of American wisdom.
The ideal of individual autonomy as the end of the state, if consistently pursued, drives out culture because it drives out all forms of involuntary- subordination and, consequently, undermines the authority necessary to protect and cultivate a valuable way of life. Eviscerating its own cultural inheritance as an embarrassing and oppressive tangle of prejudice and historical contingency, the modern state replaces culture with an ideological style of politics: liberalism, socialism, Nazism, Marxism, feminism, etc. The republic of the French Revolution and the former Soviet Union were also said to be regimes grounded in an idea, not a culture. They failed because no polity could be grounded in an ideology, which is nothing more than an aspect of a cultural inheritance about which one has become obsessive. Philosophical theorizing transmutes this aspect into the whole of experience: All history is the story of class struggle, or gender struggle, or race struggle, or a struggle for individual autonomy. In a country in the grip of an ideological style of politics, as the former Soviet Union was and America is today, a protracted cold war is necessarily waged against its own cultural inheritance. As an ideology eats away at a polity’s moral substance, people gradually lose the knowledge of how to behave and begin down the path to Hobbes’s war of all against all.
What does all of this have to do with states’ rights? Hobbes rightly called the modern state Leviathan, and the mass of millions over which it rules was the result of crushing small states and consolidating them into larger units. Throughout history-, human beings have lived in small polities. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, as well as contemporary experts from a variety of fields, have agreed that a polity has an optimal size beyond which it becomes dysfunctional. A city of 50,000 to 200,000 can produce all that human culture can afford: great art, music, architecture, literature, science, etc. Below this size, some activities cannot emerge; beyond it, crime and coordination problems increase geometrically; moral consensus breaks down; public spirit withers; bureaucracy appears; more and more time and energy is spent, not on cultivating the luxuries of a valuable way of life, but in working on the mere instrumentalities necessary to maintain a bloated and monstrous growth. With a population of 50,000, Athens produced such a depth of culture that we still take some of our bearings from it. Florence, the center of the Italian Renaissance (itself the work of small city-states) had only around 40,000. Monster cities such as New York (eight million) or Sao Paulo (19 million) cannot produce the quality of culture of the small city-states of Greece or Italy. These are not places where a way of life is communicated across generations, enjoyed, and critically explored. They are vast encampments of Hobbesian nomads, each in pursuit of his own power and glory. Indeed they are not cities at all but Leviathans, at the service of even larger political galaxies. They have earned the new barbarous names of “conurbation,” “metropolis,” and “megalopolis.”
What we call “states’ rights” is usually thought of as a concept internal to American constitutionalism, but it may also be viewed as a symbol of all of those small polities and social authorities that have resisted being obliterated by the centripetal forces of modernity. The Bill of Rights was introduced to protect the corporate liberty of the states from encroachment by the center. The states delegated to the central government the power to regulate commerce, make foreign treaties, and provide for defense. All powers needed to protect a valuable wav of life were retained by the states, including the right to establish a state religion. Congress was prohibited from establishing a religion, but the states were not. Indeed, Massachusetts maintained a religious establishment until 1833.
The Civil War and two world wars dealt a severe blow to state sovereignty and concentrated enormous power to the center. By the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court had ruled that the 14th Amendment “incorporates” the Bill of Rights something that Raoul Berger, in Government by Judiciary has shown the framers of the amendment most emphatically did not intend. This arbitrary ruling overturned a century and a half of precedent and turned the Constitution upside down. Instead of protecting the corporate liberty of the states from the central government, the Bill of Rights is now understood to protect the autonomy of the individual from the states.
With the “incorporation” doctrine, we entered the current era of abstract fundamentalist liberalism, where the center is controlled by a cultural elite engaged in a protracted cold war against traditional American society, legitimated by an ideology of individualism. The abolition of religion from the public life of the states was not only blatantly unconstitutional but evil as well. Christianity is interwoven in America’s moral and legal traditions. Even from a humane, secular point of view, it is evil to subvert the fundamental traditions—religious or not—of a people’s culture. But liberalism is not humane; it is a militant Enlightenment ideology. Liberal philosopher Richard Rorty has rightly said that a truly “liberal society . . . would be one in which no trace of divinity remained.” This, too, was intimated in the modern state from the beginning.
The Constitution, as an instrument for protecting the sovereignty of states and local communities, has utterly collapsed. What began as a central government hedged in by a doctrine of enumerated powers has, since the Civil War, gradually become the greatest concentration of financial and military power in history. But it was not always so. By 1860, the central government had been generating a surplus for around 30 years. It imposed no inland taxes, living off a tariff on imports and land sales. The states imposed inland taxes, but they were mild, and local sovereignties flourished. In contrast, the public debt today is some $6 trillion, and the federal government’s unfunded liability is some $16 trillion. Last year, the central government spent $1.6 trillion, considerably more than the entire gross national product of France. This vast sum was spent by only 435 representatives and 100 senators for a population of 265 million. (Switzerland, with under seven million people, has 247 representatives.) If the ratio of people to representatives that holds today had been in place in 1790, the House of Representatives in the first Congress would have had only five members! Major social policy is determined, not by the people in their state legislatures, but by nine unelected Supreme Court justices conjuring with the “incorporation” doctrine. Were such a regime described to us in the abstract, we should scorn it as an absurdity and as a tyranny.
What is to be done? Reform must begin by recognizing that the modern state is not a natural fate, but a highly artificial construct only 200 years old. Second, we must firmly reject the very foundation of the modern state. The massive concentration of power to the center (whatever its justifying reason) is itself evil. This concentration has been legitimated by an ideology of maximizing autonomy and destroying those substantial moral communities whose structures of involuntary subordination are offensive to liberalism. Few of us have not been seduced by the siren call of autonomy; to that extent, we are all complicit in the concentrations of power that have made possible the horrors of the 20th century. We must firmly deny that autonomy is the end of the state. The end of political association is protecting and cultivating a valuable way of life in community with others. Third, to say that a valuable way of life is prior to autonomy means a return (as much as is possible) to a politics of human scale. There must be a restoration of state and local sovereignty, including the right of a state, or city, or other significant social authority legally to resist encroachment by the center. Fourth, the language of liberalism (which has infected us all) and the philosophical superstitions it encourages should be abandoned. There arc no inalienable natural rights of individuals—independent of the moral traditions of a people—that can guide action. Liberalism is simply one way of life among others to be defended in historic contexts. Liberalism (which includes most forms of “conservatism”) must learn to tolerate illiberal forms of life. An illiberal polity would be any that does not absolutely value maximizing autonomy. That would include most regimes in history as well as earlier polities (such as 18th-century Whig Britain and the American federalism of the Framers) that thoughtfully explored and celebrated the practice of liberty. Liberals (and conservatives) must learn to accept a new form of toleration, not of individual “life plans” but of whole ways of life endowed with the sovereignty necessary to maintain themselves. Indeed, the entire language of liberalism and conservatism should be abandoned, as well as that of left and right. Historically, both of these presuppose a unitary state as the scene in which politics is played out. Conservatives such as George Will and William F. Buckley wish to control the central government in order to do good. The vision of genuine state and local sovereignty instituted by the Framers is entirely foreign to them.
If we have learned anything from this century, then the polities of the future will not be a struggle between the universalist ideologies of left and right but between the old rear-guard centralists of modernity (left or right) and the new decentralists. The language of this politics has yet to be framed.