Time for Reflection: “The Unity of the People”

by Mario Rizzo

After most presidential elections in recent years there is talk of uniting the country, somehow overcoming differences and working for the betterment of the nation. This is a dangerous idea if it is taken seriously.

In a (classical) liberal society with a minimal state this ideal is a real and benign possibility. This is because in such a society government restricts its activities to those that benefit each and all. Although people naturally differ in their priorities — the goals for their lives, how they wish to allocate their incomes, how they conceive of happiness, and their personal moral codes — they do have one interest in common. This is the preservation and enhancement of a system of voluntary social cooperation.

Social cooperation is the great means by which each of us can attain, or strive to attain, our diverse individual goals. We do this by helping other people attain their individual goals through exchange.  So a system of social cooperation does not eradicate individual differences. It does not seek to unite people in a single hierarchy of purposes to better the nation. It certainly does not require people to agree on what “betterment” means.

A system of social cooperation is an abstract and complex order that is maintained by a framework of rules. These are the ones familiar to classical liberals: mainly, property, contract and protection of the individual’s physical integrity. (Classical liberals do have disagreements about the need for rules outlawing anticompetitive behavior and for policies dealing with external effects and public goods. But even here the implicit theory is the benefit of each and all.)

Social cooperation in a liberal order is not limited to market exchanges but finds manifestation in all of the voluntary institutions of civil society including those of the nuclear or extended family. Many of these have the character of reciprocity even if the agents are not conscious of it. For example, friends may each gratuitously offer moral support to the other in times of need. But if one friend continually refused to reciprocate the relationship would end.

The statist-liberal insistence on agreement at the level of national purposes is destructive of freedom because it moves beyond the realm in which people have common economic or moral goals.  The idea of national purpose does not rest on pre-existing common values and goals but on the political suppression of individual differences.

To illustrate: Do we, as a Nation, “think” that We ought to save more? Or that We ought to increase public borrowing for economic stimulus? Do We believe that government (taxpayers’)  resources ought to be injected into failing American automobile manufacturers? Should more money go, instead, to save homeowners from foreclosures? Should more money be sent to save starving children in Africa?

The simple answer is: The questions are senseless. We all don’t have the same priorities. The idea of a Nation’s priorities among these options is a fiction designed to give the impression that the political system expresses some inner national character or some rational assessment of alternatives.  Moreover, no one can seriously claim that there is some objective morality that will enable us to order uniquely these alternatives in a way that commands our assent. Once we leave the realm of those relatively few rules that sustain social cooperation – those that benefit each and all – we enter a world in which political priorities are set by special interests motivated by their partiality and avidity. In this world what counts is the political manipulation of the hapless guy.



4 thoughts on “Time for Reflection: “The Unity of the People”

  1. Mr. Rizzo,

    I’ve tried and tried to get these very points across to many of my statist-liberal friends. It stuns me that they are often unware of the loss of liberty this kind of idea suggests.

    I had a long discussion a couple of years ago with a friend who was involved with a U.S. Aid project in Africa. She just couldn’t understand why I thought private charitable organizations were preferrable to state agencies, even though I had a whole host of supporting arguments; not least the idea that government aid programs raise funds through what is essentially a form of slavery.

    If my wife and I choose to give to an aid program, that is voluntary and hence is clearly positve for us as well as for the recipients. The efficacy of most private charities can be researched, and if they perform poorly we can shift our funds to another charity. If the state taxes us (coercion) and uses that money to fund programs of its choosing, the immorality of the state enslaving us offsets any good the money might accomplish. This also says nothing of the poor history of governmental aid programs in accomplishing goals like poverty alleviation.

    Im not sure I got through to her, even though her own experience with U.S. Aid left her disappointed and frustrated; she came home early.

    I’m going to forward your your brief, beautifully argued post to see if it could get through.


  2. Dear Rick,

    Thanks very much for your interesting comment. It took me years, with the help of the works of Hayek and Hazlitt, to see this point clearly. The basic problem is that many take the metaphor of “the people” and treat it as if it were a single individual with a coherent order of priorities.

  3. Mr. Rizzo,

    For the most part this is an accurate, objective and logical post. However, there is one glaring and essential flaw. You claim: “The idea of a Nation’s priorities among these options is a fiction designed to give the impression that the political system expresses some inner national character or some rational assessment of alternatives.” This is, however, a strawman; this system is not designed give the impression that the political system expresses some innate national character, at all. No one who votes for a representative believes that this person somehow ‘channels’ their own desires and political opinions. Rather, these people are (or should be) seen as exactly what their title suggests, i.e. representatives who employ their own reasoning to solve problem presented to the state (not really the nation, in this sense, then). Their primary objective is to negotiate different interests and opinions towards some workable majority consensus, a consensus which may not reflect the general mood or opinion of the nation. (One excellent example of this is Schiavo debacle a few years back… most of he nation believed that the federal government had absolutely *no* right seeking to intervene.)

    The problem with your formulation, in my point of view, is in this overstatement of the ideological power of consent. In my point of view, and that of many others, Bush in no form represented my point of view, nor what I believe to be ‘American ideals’ (which is, as you do suggest, a sort of fata morgana…). So, on the matter of some sort of ‘total’ consensus, I would agree. However, that in and of itself does not prove that the statist-liberal point of view is inherently flawed.

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