by Butler Shaffer
by Butler Shaffer
Our social arrangements necessitate an answer to the question of whether the interests of individuals or of institutions shall have central importance. This question is posed by our dualistic nature: each of us is a unique individual who acts to further his or her self-interests; who expresses and makes choices in furtherance of personal values; and who is the carrier of life from one generation to another. At the same time, we are social beings who require organization with others in order to survive. We cannot live well — if at all — as hermits. From the love and support of a family to the economic benefits flowing from a division of labor, our lives are rendered more meaningful and fruitful by associating with others.
The question that we too often fail to confront is whether the organizational systems we employ shall ever take priority over our individual interests. This is the major theme I developed in my book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. While social organization is essential to our personal well-being, a danger arises when any organization becomes institutionalized (i.e., when the organization becomes its own reason for being, rather than a cooperative tool for mutual individual interests).
It is our failure to maintain a skeptical awareness of organizational conduct and purposes that leads us into most of our social difficulties, including wars, economic dislocations, and a pervasive form of social conflict. Thomas Jefferson's observation that “the price of freedom is vigilance” expressed this need for a constant awareness of collective behavior.
To maintain such attentiveness, however, requires an openness of our minds to what is implicit in organizational activity, particularly that of the state. We must be insistent upon knowing what these agencies of force and destructiveness are doing; to withdraw our acquiescence in their purposes; and to take action to dismantle the machinery that is being used to suppress individual liberties. Such an awareness is dependent upon men and women being free to think about, speak about, and publish anything pertaining to the actions of the state.
All of this presumes, of course, a given attitude about the nature of political systems. Modern political thought has been grounded in the myth of the “social contract,” an idea no more clearly expressed than in the Declaration of Independence. Drawn from the thinking of such men as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other advocates of individually-centered political philosophy, the social contract theory is premised upon each person having a right to protect his or her life and property from the intrusions of others. In a society in which individualist assumptions prevail, people are free to create a political system as their agent for mutual protection. That the social contract theory of the state is a pure fiction that explains the origins of no political system, has not detracted from its underlying proposition that governments are the subordinate agents of those who comprise society.
There is, of course, an alternative model, wherein the state is its own justification for being, and to whose interests individuals are — and ought to be — subjugated. This model is found in, among others, monarchical and feudal systems of government, and finds its fullest expression in the urge for empire. In his recent article, “Of Pulitzers and treason,” Patrick Buchanan provides a defense of this state-centered proposition. His complaint is that certain government employees and journalists have conspired to make known to the public government activities that have proved embarrassing to the Bush administration.
It is alleged that a CIA official told the Washington Post that her agency was secretly interrogating terror suspects in NATO countries. Buchanan is also upset with the New York Times' reporting that American intelligence agencies have engaged in surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails involving U.S. citizens. Reporters for these newspapers received Pulitzer Prizes for reporting such activities. The result of such revelations, says Buchanan, “is to damage the U.S. government in a time of war.” A journalist engaging in such publications “should be prosecuted and, if convicted, spend the next decade in prison,” he adds.
“Are journalists above the law?,” Pat queries. Thomas Jefferson — whose view of the relationship between individuals and the state differs decidedly from that of Mr. Buchanan — answered that question this way:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
To those who share the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence, not only journalists, but people generally, would be regarded as “above the law.” Such is the logical extrapolation of a “social contract” theory of government.
If individuals are to be regarded as the principals, for whom the government is to function as no more than their agents, in what twisted manner of thinking can it be said that such principals are not “above the law” created by their agents? If you own a business, and you employ a man to act as your agent in running that business, how could his actions ever be regarded as superior to your will? How could your condemnation of the breach of his obligations be considered as “treasonous” to him? In a free society, everyone is “above” the authority of those who claim to act as their agents. Such is the very essence of agency principles.
Of course, “agency” and “social contract” views have never been taken seriously by the state, especially those that impose any impediment to governmental interests. In 1798, Congress enacted the Sedition Act, making it a crime to “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States.” It was also unlawful to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States . . . with intent to defame the said government. . . .”
Machiavelli, not John Locke, has long been the patron saint of statists; and in urging the crime of “treason” upon those who reveal truths that political operatives would prefer to keep secret from the public, Pat Buchanan is genuflecting before this paragon of realpolitik. But the underlying premises of such “bottom line” thinking produce consequences that make it difficult to address government action in any principled way. Richard Weaver warned us that “ideas have consequences,” and a perspective that considers the interests of the state as superior to — and needing protection from — the interests of individuals, can produce only humanly perverse ends.
The very concept of “treason” — which conservatives delight in throwing about against anyone with whom they disagree — is incompatible with any political theory based upon individual liberty. “Treason” is a feudal concept, more befitting a monarchical system than one grounded in social contract. One dictionary defines “treason” as “the betrayal in early English law of a lord by his vassal: the betrayal in early feudal law by a vassal of his allegiance to his superior.” The same dictionary defines a “vassal” as “one who owes or is forced to give allegiance and service to another as a superior.”
Because of its inherently coercive nature, the state will always function, in fact, as the principal, whose paramount interests preempt those for whom it pretends to function as an agent. But to constantly remind the statists of the lie upon which they presume their authority, may serve — like private gun ownership — to remind both rulers and the ruled of latent powers within men and women, that may reach a critical mass should the state over-extend itself.
Such is the wisdom of the Declaration of Independence to which the statists give lip service even as they seek to immunize the state from its liberating implications. In the words “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” are to be found a danger that any state ignores at its peril: the withdrawal of popular sanction for its rule.
In contrast to the mindset of Thomas Jefferson, the thinking of Pat Buchanan — and other statists — is straight out of Henry VIII. If the lives and purposes of others prove an inconvenience to the monarch — or any other manifestation of the state — they may be dispatched without reason or regret. Any embarrassment to the state — whether true or not is irrelevant — is to be punished. Those who refuse to submit their bodies and souls to the primacy of the state will be treated as “traitors,” betrayers of their duty of allegiance to a system bent on their dehumanization and destruction.
May 1, 2006
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.
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