Chastek on Leviathan

Philosopher James Chastek is one of the most economical writers you are ever likely to read. Often, his posts demand considerable deliberation, first to get what they are saying, second to get to the bottom of what they are saying, and third to contemplate the sequelae for one’s own understanding of what they are saying. Not infrequently, there is a fourth step: theoria, a state of pure contemplation.

In a post on the maximum practical size of a true polis – i.e., a human organization that can function as the medium of a truly political life – he sets forth in just a few paragraphs the basic problem of the political organization of modern industrial society:

One can’t scale up the polis forever and keep it as a common good, since when it becomes too big … The number of well-intentioned regulations reaches a point where a reasonable man is no longer a standard for what should be done, at which point he is replaced by consultants and court scribes. In response to all problems and difficulties involving human relations, we no longer think “what would a reasonable person do?” but “We ought to check with our lawyers to see whether this is okay”. But as soon as  political life ceases to cultivate the standard of the reasonable man, it ceases to be an expression of genuine human flourishing.

Then this:

Though there is no bright yellow line marking where it happens, at some point the size of the government hits a tipping point where it no longer is the action of us but an of an It; and we can no longer look to it as an institution within which we exercise political life but only as a Leviathan that we must appease with tax-offerings and paperwork and exploit for whatever resources it might offer us.

Read the whole thing. Then, if you have lots and lots of time to devote to the project, check out a few of his other posts. But be ready: a comfortable chair, a serene room, strong coffee, and some baroque chamber music in the background are recommended. Chastek is like mind candy that is as nourishing as beef.

8 thoughts on “Chastek on Leviathan

  1. Yesterday evening I was at a dinner party and we got to discussing how our university had changed from a habitat in which scholars could flourish (no doubt this reflects poor memory) into a parasite that feeds upon scholars. Some of this was, of course, the usual grousing about the administration, but much of it also paralleled what Chastek says about the state in these excerpts. We lamented absurd policies that are meant to preempt “exposure to litigation” and bureaucratic units that expand by writing the regulations it will be their task to enforce. Any administrative system becomes Leviathan when its overall effect is to make the lives of those under it more difficult rather than less. Obviously no individual will welcome every new rule and regulation, but if he is reasonable and the vast majority of those rules and regulations irritate and annoy his, something is seriously wrong.

  2. There is always some excuse for the failure of democracy to deliver the goods. Here, it is that the failed democracies are too big. Back in the 90s when I was last paying significant attention, libertarians were deeply enamored of neighborhood associations, and I followed them in this. The theory sounds excellent, after all. Homeowners in a neighborhood are a small polis with interests very tightly aligned by dint of, well, being homeowners in the same neighborhood.

    This aligns their interests both mechanically, in that neighborhood-related stuff that makes my life worse is likely to make my neighbor’s life worse exactly because we are right next door to each other, and via selection, the fact that we all live in the same neighborhood is a product of the fact that we all made virtually identical residency decisions in the face of a truly enormous set of other possible choices, making it likely that we, ourselves, are similar.

    Owning an actual home in an actual neighborhood with an actual homeowners’ association cured me of this particular libertarian lunacy toute de suite. Give me a federal bureaucrat over a committee of bored busybodies any day. Even municipal bureaucrats are preferable.

    Maybe in a past world in which the dimwitted volunteer bureaucrats have a widely recognized, agreed upon, and objectively good norm set to enforce this sort of thing, i.e. subsidiarity with democracy, makes good sense. But, in the absence of such a norm set, what you get enforced is some combination of what Oprah said last week, the personal preferences of the enforcers, the working out of various petty grudges and bigotries, and comically petty corruption.

    • I’ve had a mixed experience with homeowner’s associations. They have two structural weaknesses. First, there’s a very wide base of apathy, so that cranks with an agenda can easily rise to dominate administrative positions. If five percent of your neighborhood is cranks, there is a 50:50 chance one of them will be president of the HOA (ditto PTO-PTA). The other problem is that, outside of condominium developments, the HOA doesn’t actually control any common property. The homeowners control their respective properties and the city controls the public property. It sometimes happens that the HOA pressures the city to control the public property, but most often the HOA pressures the city to control the private property.

      We actually need a word other than “democracy” to describe voting in small organizations in which votes are restricted to members, membership is restricted to investors, and individual investor’s votes have a weight proportionate to that individual’s investment.

      • “Privately held corporation” or maybe “closely held corporation” is what we call those things, no?

  3. Unrelated to the topic, but I found no where better to post (I found no section contact or equivalent): May I become a topic initiation?

    My blog is read by nearly no one, and my points of view are politically incorrect enough to be afraid of political persecution from people at work for example, so it generates only negative effects. But I think that I can contribute interresting top-level posts here, bringing new questions and ideas to our group. I’d like to identify only as “Felipe”.

  4. Very timely remark.

    Indeed, when the Hellenistic kingdoms replaced Greek polis it caused a very deep change in the Greek system of thinking; both on the practical level and in philosophy. From love of the city to Cosmopolis. Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, but some of the other pupils of Aristotle were put to death for trying to murder Alexander – and they had reasons to try it.

    In philosophy, the original result of that change was growth of Stoicism, and finally – Christianity.

    Toynbee too wrote many interesting things abut this phenomenon. Such a philosophical/religious result of a world-empire is quite typical. Another typical example would be Buddhism.

    As, according to Toynbee and Spengler, we are nearing our own world-empire, there is indeed growing need for the “second religiousness” to minister to the new spiritual needs of the anomic population.

    However, in the case of West, the bureaucratisation is hardly what is new; in fact, bureaucracy (in Rome) was older than West, and can be said to have created it. Throughout the thousand years of the history of the West, there was never a single Greek-style polis on the national level. Even Italian city-states were governed mostly bureaucratically.

    In the present case, the relevant change is the change from the national state to the international New World Order. Unfortunately, to describe it it is not enough to know Aristotle, since Aristotle wrote nothing about Western nation-states.


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