Throughout its history, liberalism—the ideology today called “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism”—has suffered from the impression that it is primarily against things. This is not entirely wrong. Historically, liberalism coalesced as a recognizable and coherent ideology in opposition largely to mercantilism and absolutism throughout Western Europe. Over time, this opposition extended to socialism, protectionism, imperialism, aggressive warfare, and slavery as well. In this regard, liberals have for centuries fought against a wide array of moral and economic evils that spread poverty, injustice, and misery.
Being “against” things, however, has never been sufficient in itself, and liberals have never contented themselves with being so. Liberalism, of course, has long been closely associated with so-called “bourgeois” values, private property, local self-determination, and—in spite of claims to the contrary—religious institutions. Today, however, these institutions that have long undergirded liberalism and the free society are in an advanced state of decay. These are the institutions that have made society and civic life possible without state control.
The decline of these institutions did not happen by accident. The power of the modern state is the result of long wars by the state against independent churches, against family ties, and against local self-determination and self-government. The state has never suffered rivals, so any organization that competes for the “hearts and minds” of the population must be made impotent.
So, we find that the challenge at hand is more than simply opposing the state. Rather, it is necessary to build up, reinforce, and sustain institutions that can offer alternatives to the state in terms of organizing and supporting human society. Without these institutions, liberalism’s job is much more difficult—or even impossible.
Societies Are Composed of Institutions
As libertarian historian Ralph Raico notes, liberals make a key distinction between the state and “society.” Society is simply those institutions that are not the state. Or as David Gordon puts it, “Liberals believe that the main institutions of society can function in entire independence of the state.”
The idea that the institutions of society can function without a state is an established historical fact. Since the beginnings of human civilization, even in the absence of states, people have built up institutions and relationships designed to provide order, security, and social safety nets. As described by historian Paul Freedman, many societies have been held together by something other than “government in the sense that we understand it.” Rather, they can be held together with “informal social networks and ties.” These include “kinship, family, private vengeance, religion.”
These institutions have also been essential in the Western ideal of dispersing political power among a variety of organizations rather than concentrating it in a single central authority. According to Raico, the Western struggle for freedom and political independence is historically characterized by these institutions’ fight for their own separate legal rights:
Princes often found their hands tied by the charters of rights (Magna Carta, for instance) which they were forced to grant their subjects. In the end, even within the relatively small states of Europe, power was dispersed among estates, orders, chartered towns, religious communities, corps, universities, etc., each with its own guaranteed liberties.
Not surprisingly, the rise of the modern state is closely connected to the state’s struggle against these institutions. As historian of the state Martin van Creveld has shown, in order to consolidate power, the state first had to gravely weaken the churches, the nobility, and the towns. After all, these organizations competed with the state. They often provided economic safety nets of their own and civil order through courts and local militias. They created a sense of community and social purpose apart from the idea of the nation-state. They provided key economic services, as in the case of the Hanseatic League, which offered safe trade routes and arbitration services for merchants.
These polycentric political systems were obstacles to the state’s consolidation of power, and as Murray Rothbard has noted, the process of abolishing nonstate institutions accelerated during the early modern period. By the sixteenth century in France, the process was in full swing. The French state “systematically tore down the legal rights of all corporations or organizations which, in the Middle Ages, had stood between the individual and the state. There were no longer any intermediary or feudal authorities. The king [was] absolute over these intermediaries.”
[Read More: “Conceived in Liberty: The Medieval Communes of Europe” by Guglielmo Piombini]
This process was necessary to end pockets of independence and potential resistance to the state. In earlier times, the state had to gain buy-in from a variety of organizations that could offer real resistance to its rule. As Alex de Tocqueville noted in the nineteenth century: “Not a hundred years ago, amongst the greater part of European nations, numerous private persons and corporations were sufficiently independent to administer justice, to raise and maintain troops, to levy taxes, and frequently even to make or interpret the law.”
Creating a Direct State-Citizen Relationship
Yet even after their medieval legal independence was abolished, churches, fraternal organizations, and extended family networks continued to be institutions critical to local solidarity, regional independence, and poverty relief.
Moreover, extended family enterprises made up a separate locus of power outside the state, and many of these families self-consciously sought to remain economically independent. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s view of the “bourgeois family” is not exactly complimentary, but he nonetheless captures some of the central role of the family in nineteenth-century society: “The ‘family’ was not merely the basic social unit of bourgeois society but its basic unit of property and business enterprise.”
But even this informal institutional competition with the state could not be tolerated.
In the nineteenth century, the state’s opposition to independent institutions was taken to the next level with the welfare state. This came first in Germany, where the welfare state was introduced by conservative nationalist Otto von Bismarck. Raico contends the welfare state was a deliberate effort by Bismarck to end the population’s financial independence from the state, and Antony Mueller concludes the welfare state established “a system of mutual obligation between the State and its citizens.” This further solidified the idea that the state was to enjoy a direct relationship with individuals, unimpeded by local, cultural, or religious institutional obstacles.
The Twilight of Nonstate Institutions
The effort to neutralize nonstate institutions has been enormously successful. Institutional obstacles to state power are shadows of their former selves. Long gone are the independent communes, the free towns, the local militias, and the independent monasteries and churches. In more recent history, even fraternal organizations and local charities have become increasingly invisible, and ever more dependent on the central government’s tax dollars. Religious observance is in deep decline. Church organizations such as schools and parishes are consequently much reduced. Families are in decline as well. Both marriage rates and fertility are falling, and divorce is widespread, meaning fewer familial bonds are for the long term. Even among people calling themselves conservative, it’s easy to find many who are divorced, cohabiting, living apart from their own young children, and distant from extended relations.
In contrast, the most enduring economic and institutional relationship many people will have is with their national government. The vast majority of taxes are paid to central governments. Most healthcare and pension benefits come from national governments. States—not churches or local prominent families—now financially dominate universities, hospitals, and poverty relief.
This is all to the advantage of the state, since it means fewer individuals can rely on family or other local networks for economic or social security. It means fewer allegiances to any community except the vaguely defined and essentially imaginary national “community.”
Individuals Are Not Enough
In response to all this, some might say, “Oh, we don’t need any organizations or institutions. We only need rugged individualists!” It’s a nice idea, but there is no evidence of this actually working as a counterweight to state power. Historically, liberals have long understood that opposition to state power cannot be effective if based merely on opposition from diffuse individuals who share no preexisting and enduring practical, religious, familial, or economic interests and feelings of common cause.
Rather, resistance to the state has tended to be centered around some cultural, religious, linguistic, or local institutional loyalty. Historically, this often took the form of local networks of families and their allies. Tocqueville noted that these groups provided a ready nexus around which to organize opposition to government abuses. He writes, “As long as family feeling was kept alive, the antagonist of oppression was never alone; he looked about him, and found his clients, his hereditary friends, and his kinsfolk. If this support was wanting, he was sustained by his ancestors and animated by his posterity.”
Without these, or similar, institutions, Tocqueville concluded, political opposition to the state becomes ineffective. Specifically, without institutions through which to practically build resistance to state power, even antiregime ideology has no way of being brought into practice:
What strength can even public opinion have retained, when no twenty persons are connected by a common tie; when not a man, nor a family, nor chartered corporation, nor class, nor free institution, has the power of representing that opinion; and when every citizen—being equally weak, equally poor, and equally dependant [sic]—has only his personal impotence to oppose to the organized force of the government?
The Franco-Swiss liberal Benjamin Constant came to similar conclusions, noting that local social institutions often provide a cultural counterbalance to state power through solidarity and organization. Constant writes: “The interests and memories which are born of local customs contain a germ of resistance which authority suffers only with regret, and which it hastens to eradicate. With individuals it has its way more easily; it rolls its enormous weight over them effortlessly, as over sand.”
What Is to Be Done?
Thus, if we are meaningfully oppose state power, it is necessary to encourage, grow, and sustain institutions and organization over which states cannot so easily roll their enormous weight. When people support a local parish, raise a family, build a business, create mutual aid organizations, or foster local civic independence, they are doing work that is absolutely critical to fighting state power. While it is always good to speak ill of state power—and to oppose its countless violent and impoverishing grifts—this is not enough. We must also speak well of nonstate institutions and strengthen them in our daily work and daily lives. Without these institutions of kinship, religion, markets, and towns, nonstate society will be irrelevant.
Mere opposition to the state—without viable private or local alternatives—will never be sufficient. People want services like education and help for widows, orphans, and the disabled. They want safety, a sense of community, and solidarity with others. These benefits of society do not require states, but they do require institutions. Yet these institutions in our own time as so reduced as to offer little as alternatives to the state.