Loving the Democratic State Moderately

Ralph Hancock begins his interesting essay[i] be reminding us that, despite its internal contradictions and failures, the modern state has become the only conceivable political form in our post-modern world. This should be puzzling since the record is far from being a convincing successful story. At its best, the modern state has allowed us to live together and pursue freely and peacefully our individual interests as we think fit; yet, the modern state is also a symbol of the iron cage of modernity, as illustrated, among other things, by its power of supervising citizens’ movements and its powerful tax system’s global reach.[ii] At its worst, the modern state apparatus has served as an instrument in the hands of leaders interested in pursuing utopian experiments through discriminating interventions of every kind that reached deeply into the fabric of society, often altering it beyond imagination. Unfortunately, one can find numerous examples of massive state-initiated social engineering projects that miserably failed, with lasting consequences for entire societies. The list is long and includes The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, the forced collectivization in Russia and Ukraine, the promotion of heavy industries in the former Eastern Europe (with major effects on social mobility and the environment), compulsory villagization in Africa, culminating with the rural “systematization campaign” in Ceauşescu’s Romania in the 1980s and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.[iii]

In an ambitious book, Seeing Like a State (quoted in Hancock’s essay), Yale University political scientist James C. Scott has linked all these failed experiments to the influence of a “high-modernist ideology,”[iv] over-confident in its legitimacy and rationality as a vehicle of social and economic progress, capable of mobilizing a huge array of resources for the purpose of radically transforming societies according to well-designed blueprints. “Not surprisingly,” Scott points out, “its most fertile social soil was to be found among planners, engineers, architects, scientists, and technicians whose skills and status it celebrated as the designers of the new order.”[v] While many of them limited themselves to offering technocratic schemes for making societies more legible and easier to organize and control, others also had the ambition of becoming engineers of the soul. To this effect, they endorsed authoritarian and totalitarian visions that have often done irreparable damage to entire populations. Scott attributed these tragedies to the existence of a pernicious tabula rasa mentality according to which entire societies are nothing but blank pieces of paper waiting for visionary leaders to wipe them clean. As an illustration of this forma mentis, he quoted Robert Owen’s chilling vision for New Lanark: “Each generation, indeed each administration, shall see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility, and if by chance this tabula rasa had been defaced by the irrational scribbling of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the rationalist must be to scrub it clean.”[vi] Scott also drew upon the work of Michael Oakeshott, in particular his famous essay “Rationalism in Politics” (originally published in 1947), in which the English political philosopher distinguished between “technical knowledge,” formulated into universal rules which are deliberately learned and applied, and “practical” knowledge, that exists only in use and cannot be formulated in apodictic rules.[vii] The implication would be that many ambitious large-scale social engineering projects were based not only on a grave confusion between technical and practical knowledge, but even worse, on the assertion that (what Oakeshott called) practical knowledge “is not knowledge at all.”[viii]

Yet, for all the idolatry of reason and technique that one can find among many social engineers, one might want to resist the temptation of denouncing (all of) them as enemies of freedom. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that some of their transformative projects might have had a positive influence on important public education and public-health projects, transportation and social security programs implemented throughout the world. I say might, being well aware that this choice involves a value judgment, and that others (like Oakeshott) would most likely want to disagree with me on this point. Reading Ralph Hancock’s essay, I am not sure where he comes down on this important point, but I do have a hunch.

On the one hand, he reminds us that politics is in its essence a deliberative attempt to reason together about what is fundamentally at stake for us as members of political communities. Yet reason is an ambiguous word. At its best, Hancock notes, drawing on a trope in ancient political philosophy, reason can be defined as a passion for the right ordering of cities and households, while at its worst, reason can become a brutal means of bringing the entire reality under its domination. The Greeks identified reason with the living together in a polis, but the Greek reason, Hancock reminds us, was enmeshed in the tension between aristocracy and democracy, and never clearly envisioned the possibility of unity (of a people under a king, of unified humanity under God).

On the other hand, Hancock seems to follow in Oakeshott’s footsteps (even if he doesn’t refer to the latter) when arguing that “the mystique of ‘seeing like a state’ generated and fueled state-dependency, a deep-seated assumption that our basic problems are not moral, but merely technical.”[ix] On this view, the belief in the power of the state is the political manifestation of a certain orientation toward the world. Hancock seems genuinely worried that “the rational state tends to penetrate further and further into human moral, social, and religious existence.”[x] But then he goes a notch further to challenge the myth of the rational state when claiming that the authority of the modern state could never be grounded in pure secular reason.[xi]  While the growth of the authority and apparatus of the modern state has been a linear process, it has also sometimes been an unintended consequence of human action.

I empathize with Oakeshott, Scott, and Hancock’s strong commitment to individual freedom and must confess that I, too, often feel powerless when confronted with the inescapable growth of the modern state. Crossing an immigration point these days (especially when returning back to the U.S.) reminds us how far we have travelled from a world that knew of no passports only a century and a half ago. Having lived under a totalitarian regime that was based on a strong state which pretended to be an agent of progress while being subservient to the interests of a vanguard, I have learned to be deeply suspicious of top-down social engineering and bureaucrats pretending to serve the people. Over time, I have come to appreciate more and more the importance of self-government and the cultivation of self-governing capabilities. One of the abiding interests of mine has been to rethink what are the true “means of government,” a concept that, oddly, I have first come across in the writings of a French liberal, François Guizot (1787-1874), who was often denounced as a centralizer and stubborn statist. At the same time, though, I continue to acknowledge the importance of statesmanship and constitution-making.

It was a nice coincidence that the vagaries of academic life brought me a decade ago to Indiana University, Bloomington, the home of Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, an institution where the figure of Alexis de Tocqueville has always played a key role (unlike Marx or, for that matter, Max Weber). The two founders of this unique institution are Elinor and Vincent Ostrom with whom I have been extremely honored and fortunate to collaborate over the past decade.[xii] In her path-breaking book Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom traced and explained the conditions under which self-governing institutions evolve; in so doing, she took issue with centralizing policies that seek to neutralize multiple levels of management and governance. One of the core beliefs undergirding the Workshop’s agenda is that the most effective patterns of collaboration do not come from above–the state, marred, among others, by inefficiency, corruption, and information problems— but from below. This is the level where self-government occurs in practice, where one relies on local knowledge and trial-and-error learning processes to solve practical issues for which there can be no universally applicable rules (as Oakeshott insisted). In other words, successful self-governing enterprises and base-level institutions resemble neither the state nor the market, but follow their own logic of reciprocity and accountable autonomy as systems created and refined by the users themselves.

Elinor Ostrom’s insights offer a powerful critique of what James C. Scott described as “the hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how.”[xiii] In this regard, her writings (as well as those of Vincent Ostrom) follow in the footsteps of Tocqueville who famously praised democracy mostly for its indirect effects and its capacity to foster self-government. In democratic regimes, Tocqueville claimed, we do not elect the most competent leaders, nor do we come to pass the best laws. Furthermore, “democracy, even when local circumstances and the dispositions of the people allow it to persist, does not offer the sight of administrative regularity and methodical order in government; that is true. Democratic liberty does not execute each of its enterprises with the same perfection as intelligent despotism; often it abandons them before gaining the fruit, or chances dangerous ones.”  And yet, we seem to love democracy for its indirect effects that make it vastly superior to any form of enlightened despotism: “In the long run it [democracy] produces more than despotism; it does not do each thing as well, but it does more things. Under its dominion, it is, above all, not what the public administration executes that is great, but what is executed without it and outside of it. Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it does what the most skillful government is often impotent to create; it spreads throughout the social body a restless activity, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it and that, if only circumstances are favorable, can bring forth wonders. Those are its true advantages.”[xiv] This is (still), as far as I can see, “the state we are in,” to quote Hancock’s title, a state that leaves several reasons for optimism while reminding us that the future lies open ahead and depends on our choices.

[i] Ralph Hancock, “The State We’re In.”

[ii] To give just one example, in the U.S., the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) now requires foreign financial institutions to start reporting to the IRS on U.S. citizens’ accounts.

[iii] For an illuminating account, see James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[iv]  Ibid, 4.

[v] Ibid, 5.

[vi] Quoted in ibid., 341.

[vii] See Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 12.

[viii] Ibid., 15.

[ix] Hancock, “The State We’re In.”

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “The modern nation-state’s transcendence,” Hancock writes, “is articulated in relation to a people’s religious commitments,” (ibid.), which amounts to saying that the principles undergirding the development of the modern state are a combination of rational and trans-rational elements.

[xii] On the work of Elinor Ostrom and the so-called Bloomington school, see two excellent recent symposia: “Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons,” in Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2010 and “The Bloomington School,” The Good Society, Vol. 20, No, 1, 2011.

[xiii] Scott, Seeing Like a State, 6.

[xiv] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010), vol. II, 399.


shutterstock_513614710 (Vatican)

Wisdom for New Things

Catholic Social Teaching will have minimal value if it serves mainly to channel the nostalgic yearning many people feel for older, simpler-seeming times.