Community, Exit, and Liberty

Posted on February 26, 2010 by


Mike Gibson, over at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom asked me to submit a discussion of the place the right of exit might play in discussions between libertarians and communitarians.  After I did, I thought it might also interest readers here since my argument depended on democracies being spontaneous orders rather than States.  This argument challenges libertarians, but it also challenges communitarians as I have come to understand them.

Individuals and communities relate as the sides of a coin, each implying and depending on the other. On this I hope we all can agree, and I will proceed assuming this is so. Before I can go farther, though, I want to try and make more clear how I define terms such as community, democracy, and individual.

Individuals do not exist in a community except perhaps in the earliest times and in the most isolated groups. The modern “Community” (capital ‘C’) is made up of countless nested and overlapping communities oriented around different values and groups of values. Such communities include families, religious groups, economic groups and professions, the arts and the schools of which they are comprised, groups focusing on hobbies, broadly and narrowly defined, language groups, groups identifying with a common history, and so on.

In a crucial sense, individuals are gestalts of the various communities in which they participate. This is not all that they are, but it is a crucial part of who they are.

As communities become more diverse the Community gradually expands to the point that it consists mostly of strangers sharing only a few things in common. Identifying criteria become more abstract.

The democratic political community is that territorial area within which members of these complex communities seek to discover, modify, and enforce rules that ideally make for harmony between the multiple sub-communities that constitute it. It can be relatively unified, like Sweden, or federal, like Canada. In modern times no single political community is entirely autonomous, as the International Court of Justice and other multi-national agencies indicate. (Significantly, only democratic governments have proven willing to give up part of their sovereignty, beginning with the adoption of the US Constitution, but hardly limited to it.)

Traditionally the democratic political community has been treated as a State by both libertarians and communitarians, getting both off on to the wrong foot. The first insightful political theorist to see that this was not the case was James Madison, but his insights were not followed up either in the US or elsewhere. With a broader understanding of what Hayek called “spontaneous orders” we are in a better position to appreciate how they are not, as well as the heavy price we have paid for treating them as if they were.

A State is a hierarchy of command, the rulers at the top, whether king or dictator, party or oligarchy, theocracy or aristocracy, seeking to impose a hierarchy of goals on the society over which they rule. A state is an organization in the sense that it can be defined teleologically. It has interests and goals.

A democracy has universal or nearly universal suffrage (most aspects of democratic politics become relevant when suffrage is universal manhood, but not all), freedom of political speech, freedom of political organization, and freedom of the press such that all voters can be reasonably exposed to alternatives to the current incumbents who can be ousted in regularly scheduled elections.

In the US case (other democracies descended from States and so are harder to differentiate, but it can be done) the equivalent of the State is the Executive Branch. It is subordinate to the legislative branch which, when push comes to shove, is constitutionally dominant while itself being subject to the requirement of regular contested elections whose outcome is determined by the population.

That is, in a democracy the State (Executive Branch/Functions) is subordinated to the electoral choices of individuals who each in their own way reflect a portion of the total community make-up within the political community. A democracy is not a hierarchy. Rather, it is a means by which multiple and overlapping and interpenetrating communities can seek to discover, modify, and implement basic rules they regard as optimal for the functioning of the inclusive community. We call this the “public good” and it is always a matter of discovery and modification.

Obviously there is no guarantee the public good will be discovered in any optimal sense and plenty of evidence it often is not. Organizations within this matrix are always seeking to gain control of it and insulate themselves from its dynamics. They do so by saying they seek the public good, values, or some other term that sounds good to everyone or by subordinating democratic processes to extra-democratic principles, such as control of wealth. Democracies have serious principle agent problems, and this is why some dimensions of the public good can often be best attained outside traditional political means. But just what these are is itself open to political determination. Some public values will be provided politically, and some through philanthropy, but the border between them is determined politically and pragmatically, not ideologically.

The public good is no more discoverable by an ideology or group of experts than market equilibrium is discoverable by a group of planners or scientific validity by a separate group of scientific judges established to determine whose arguments shall prevail. All of these spontaneous orders depend on all participants having formal equality and all depend on participants playing by the rules.

To argue that democracies are spontaneous orders is an unfamiliar position for many because it cuts at cross-purposes to modern ideological straightjackets on both individualistic and communitarian sides. But plenty of literature now backs the claim up, and that it is so explains why democracies, alone among all form of government, have never waged war on one another, give up portions of sovereignty peacefully, and even in important cases allowing for peaceful secession (Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and had it come to that, almost certainly Canada and many direct democracies among New England’s small towns when they had more autonomy than they do today). Others, such as the UK and Spain, have gone from highly centralized to more federal forms of internal structure. Except for times of foreign crisis and natural disaster when a hierarchy of goals is externally imposed, democracies cannot be described in terms of hierarchies of goals. And it is when such hierarchies exist, and there is greatest unanimity, that democracies act most undemocratically. This is a paradox only when we equate democracies with States.

To put this point in terms of systems theory, democracies are spontaneous orders that are in continual flux. That are variously enlarging and shrinking their boundaries by means of widespread consent rather than conquest, and are similarly acquiring and devolving decision making authority from other democratic bodies of which they are constituted. The image of stability and permanency that we associate with states is evidence of a breakdown in democratic processes. The organizations within a spontaneous order always have a tendency to seek to freeze adaptive processes at points where their dominance can be assured.

I have gone on at some length here because what I will argue is dependent on the democracies-are-not-states argument.


Democracies have been the only governments to my knowledge that have allowed secession when a significant portion of their territory demands it. Obviously this is relevant to the issue at hand. The US Civil War was not a war between two democracies. The Confederacy was founded, as its leaders emphasized, on slavery. Because it’s fundamental principle was domination and coercion, not only did these perversions leak into the rest of Southern society (which they continue to poison) the Confederacy lacked the basic legitimacy, even at home, needed to make a successful secession work. The votes for secession were usually by a ruling class that held office only because they were slave owners. Had the desire for secession been truly deeply held, if the North had conquered the Southern guerilla war would have rendered the occupation unsuccessful. There was not enough popular desire to carry on such a conflict. By contrast, when there was genuine popular demand, often the democracies allowed it. And Southern propaganda to the contrary, absent slavery there would have been no secession, because issues such as tariffs were easily amenable to political compromise.

Exit in truly democratic governments exists at two levels. First, individuals have always been free to leave. Second, entire areas, when large enough, have often been able to depart peacefully as Norway, Slovakia, and potentially Quebec demonstrate.

As a community concerned about harmonizing as best it can the diverse communities of which it is constituted, democracies are also quite justified in setting entrance requirements for immigrants. The language of universal abstract rights does not give everyone the right to move into anyone else’s community. What those rules of entrance will be are the concern of the community itself.

The major principled problem here regards populations that were conquered and incorporated into a democratic society against their will, and who are too small to be politically powerful. Scandanavian Laps, American and Canadian Indians, Hawaiians, and Australian Aborigines are the most obvious such groups. But these crimes were not the result of democratic principles being followed with regard to them, and significantly, what improvement that has occurred in their situations has been by their calling upon democratic principles which obviously constitute more than “majority rule.” (Majority rule is a very simple-minded definition of democracy, but still complex enough to elude many conservatives.)

Limits of Exit

Some individuals with a distorted sense of their uniqueness think they should not be subject to the decisions of their fellows when they disagree with the decisions. But the most basic means by which people relate to one another in modern society depend on this process they reject. In the hard core individualistic view, virtually all or all relations are defined in terms of property rights. However, determining a property right is a political decision. Always.

All property right are defined not by the things to which they attach, as we usually think, but by the relationships which right-holders are enabled to pursue when they own a property right. Property rights define realms of potential relationships that a person is free to pursue. My property right to my gun does not allow me to fire it in a city in most cases because the community has determined there is too much danger to others. Even if I fire it in the air, I cannot tell where the bullet will descend. So ownership of firearms, which is a constitutional right, is NOT open to recreational shooting in cities. No sane firearm owner wishes it to be. Certain things are not allowed but this does not take away a right that would exist were it not denied politically. Property rights are always embedded in community relations. Robinson Crusoe did not need property rights until Friday came along.

The same holds true when I play my music. After certain hours neighbors have a right not to have to hear it. Why? Because of a community decision that could have been otherwise and still been as justified. Because what is or is not justified is the decision of the political community, as is the fact that earlier in the day they could not prevent me playing my music so long as it did not exceed a certain (higher) level.

The only limits to what a democratic community can decide are property rights are the most basic human rights, which this paper is assuming. If someone is in serious disagreement about a law that the community in which they are in is making, and the community is reasonably democratic, they have several options.

1. They can emigrate if another community more to their liking will take them.

2. They can convince a large enough portion of their neighbors they are right, and seek secession.

3. They can seek to convince enough residents that they are right to get the law overturned.

4. They can violate the law through civil disobedience and use that to dramatize the issue and get people to think more wisely about it – the Thoreauvian solution.

What they cannot legitimately do in a genuine democracy (meaning where a reasonable opportunity exists by which they can seek peacefully to persuade others) is to act violently in resistance. Just where this line is crossed is often difficult to determine, and people will disagree about it. But it is a fateful one that should only be crossed when the issue is serious enough, as our own Declaration of Independence emphasized when justifying separation even from an undemocratic power. Lunatics and sociopaths to the contrary, that line has not been crossed in the US.

A democracy is a rare achievement that cannot simply be taken for granted. It’s value lies in having an entire political community cross that fateful boundary between being an organization of domination that seeks and flourishes on oppression and war, to an emergent process where organizations are limited in their power and always open to challenge. Those who seek to turn a democracy into an organization are the worst enemies of civilization it is possible to reasonably imagine.

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