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From Part One The first principle of libertarian social analysis is a concern about the concentration of power. One of the mantras of libertarianism is Lord Acton's dictum, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." As the first selection in this section demonstrates, that concern has a long history. God's warning to the people of Israel about "the ways of the king that will reign over you" reminded Jews and Christians for centuries that the state was at best a necessary evil.
The history of the West is characterized by competing centers of power. We may take that for granted, but it was not true everywhere. In most parts of the world, church and state were united, leaving little room for independent power centers to develop. Divided power in the West might be traced to the response of Jesus to the Pharisees: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." In so doing he made it clear that not all of life is under the control of the state. This radical notion took hold in Western Christianity.
The historian Ralph Raico writes, "The essence of the unique European experience is that a civilization developed that felt itself to be a wholeChristendomand yet was radically decentralized. With the fall of Rome, ... the continent evolved into a mosaic of separate and competing jurisdictions and polities whose internal divisions themselves excluded centralized control." An independent church checked the power of states, just as kings prevented power from becoming centralized in the hands of the church. In the free, chartered towns of the Middle Ages, people developed the institutions of self-government. The towns provided a place for commerce to flourish.
Even law, usually thought of today as a unified product of government, has a pluralist history. As Harold Berman writes in Law and Revolution, "Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Western legal tradition is the coexistence and competition within the same community of diverse jurisdictions and diverse legal systems.... Legal pluralism originated in the differentiation of the ecclesiastical polity from secular polities.... Secular law itself was divided into various competing types, including royal law, feudal law, manorial law, urban law, and mercantile law. The same person might be subject to the ecclesiastical courts in one type of case, the king's court in another, his lord's court in a third, the manorial court in a fourth, a town court in a fifth, a merchants' court in a sixth." Even more important, individuals had at least some degree of choice among courts, which encouraged all the legal systems to dispense good law.
In all these ways people in the West developed a deep skepticism about concentrated power. When kings, especially Louis XIV in France and the Stuart kings in Britain, began to claim more power than they had traditionally had, Europeans resisted. The institutions of civil society and self-government proved stronger in England than on the Continent, and the Stuarts' attempt to impose royal absolutism ended ignominiously, with the beheading of Charles I in 1649.
Modern liberal ideas emerged as a response to absolutism, in the attempt to protect liberty from an overweening state. Especially in England, the Levellers, John Locke, and the opposition writers of the eighteenth century developed a defense of religious toleration, private property, freedom of the press, and free markets for labor and commerce.
In the following selections, Thomas Paine takes those opposition ideas a step further: Government itself is at best "a necessary evil." The first king was no doubt just "the principal ruffian of some restless gang," and the English monarchy itself began with a "French bastard, landing with an armed banditti." There was no divinity in the powers that be, and the people were thus justified in rebelling against a government that exceeded its legitimate powers.
Once the American Revolution was successful, James Madison and other Americans set out on another task: creating a government on liberal principles, one that would secure the benefits of civil society and not extend itself beyond that vital but minimal task. His solution was the United States Constitution, which he defended, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, in a series of newspaper essays that came to be known as The Federalist Papers, the most important American contribution to political philosophy. In the famous Federalist no. 10, he explained how the limited government of a large territory could avoid falling prey to factional influence and majoritarian excesses. If Madison and his colleagues might be viewed as conservative libertarians, many of the Anti-Federalists were more radical libertarians, who feared that the Constitution would not adequately limit the federal government and whose efforts resulted in the addition of a Bill of Rights.
Forty years after the Constitution was ratified, a young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to observe the world's first liberal country. His reflections became one of the most important works in liberal political theory, Democracy in America. He warned that a country based on political equality might develop a new kind of despotism, one that would, like a nurturing parent, "cover the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform." Americans would have to be eternally vigilant to protect their hard-won liberty.
In one of the most enduring liberal texts, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill set forth his principle that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." (Other libertarian scholars would argue that "harm" is too vague a standard and that the better formulation would be "to protect the well-defined rights of life, liberty, and property.") He also argued that the tasks of government should be limitedeven if it might perform some task better than civil societyto avoid "the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power."
Twentieth-century libertarians have continued to examine the nature of power and to look for ways to limit it. H. L. Mencken excoriated government as a "hostile power" but did not hold out much hope for changing that. Isabel Paterson feared that humanitarian impulses exercised through inappropriate means could lead even good people to wield power in dangerous ways. Murray Rothbard took a radical view among libertarian scholars: that all coercive government is an illegitimate infringement on natural liberty and that all goods and services could be better supplied through voluntary processes than through government. Richard Epstein approached the issue of power differently: Given that we need some coercive government to protect us from each other and allow civil society to flourish, how do we limit it? He offers in his selection a threefold answer: federalism, separation of powers, and strict guarantees for individual rights.
Constraining power is the great challenge for any political system. Libertarians have always put that challenge at the center of their political and social analysis.
Copyright © 1997 by David Boaz