Liberty or Tyranny?

When my kids were still very young, they used to amuse themselves with a pair of small, wooden, humanoid counters, resembling those effigies we see on TV commercials advertising a cure for aching joints. One was called Snazzy Guy, the other Shabby Guy, and they would engage in furious battles which, after immense exertions and much thunderous pounding into one another, Snazzy Guy would invariably win. Shabby Guy would lie prostrate on the floor for some time before slowly reviving and preparing to enter the lists again. The battle, it seems, never ends and it is tempting to extrapolate. In the current milieu, the proponents of conservatism and limited government are the snazzy guys of the sociopolitical world. The socialist utopians and big government Statists are the shabby guys who oppose them.

“For the Statist,” writes Mark Levin in his bestselling Liberty and Tyranny, “liberty is not a blessing but the enemy. It isn’t possible to achieve Utopia if individuals are free to go their own way.” Founded on the premise of total control over the individual citizen whom it regards as a molecular constituent of the larger whole, Statism is all-encompassing and all-devouring. Thus, Levin continues, as if providing a gloss not only on a political philosophy but on Orwell’s 1984, the individual “must become reliant on and fearful of the state. His first duty must be to the state — not family, community, and faith.”

The debate involving the proper relation between the individual and the state is a hot button issue these days, but it has an impressively ancient lineage, going back at least to Plato’s Republic. And indeed, the political and philosophical argument in which we are currently embroiled, an integral part of the so-called “culture wars,” reprises with uncanny fidelity the discussion between Plato and his student Aristotle. Which term of the dialectic in play is to take precedence, the free individual or the overarching state, civil society or the governing apparatus, Snazzy or Shabby — in short, liberty or tyranny?

Plato is the father of the centralist or monist political tradition, most powerfully articulated in the works of authoritarian thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, and in our time primarily by the philosopher John Rawls. The state Plato imagined is defined by three essential features: it is ascetic, monolithic, and mystical, a kind of organism in which the sense of oneness is created through the political bond alone. In Book II of the Politics, Aristotle took direct aim on the Republic, especially on what we would today call its communism (proposed for the Guardian class), its elitism (raising a cadre of philosopher-kings to govern the republic) and on its underlying premise that the state must be as little differentiated as possible. “Excessive unification is a bad thing in a state,” writes Aristotle. And again, “There comes a point when the effect of unification is that the state, if it does not cease to be a state, will certainly be a very worse one; it is as if one were to reduce harmony to unison or rhythm to a single beat.” He concludes, “a city must be a plurality.”

Plato desired to see the political organism become an assemblage of individuals devoid of individuality, a collection of monads, atoms, or integers emancipated from all communal or associational ties and identified exclusively with the state. There are no buffering or in-between guilds, fellowships, or “corporations.” Aristotle, on the other hand, saw the state as balanced by the power of other, smaller communities within the political order, such as kinship, religion, or locality, natural rather than artificial unions. He regarded these prepolitical, interstitial communities as vital to the human personality and to the health of what we call the civil society. He would surely have approved of Winston’s mother in 1984, who “possessed a kind of nobility … because the standards that she obeyed were private ones” rather than those of party loyalty.

Aristotle’s notion of these more intimate, intermediary unities on which the liberty of the person rests is the source of the pluralist or decentralist tradition that has been defended by conservative thinkers across the centuries, most famously by John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, and in the modern period, by Friedrich Hayek and John Kekes. “To love the whole,” counsels Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. ... To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections.”