Happy birthday to my wonderful friend and ally in this crazy world, Aeon Skoble. Here is my review of his 2008 book, a book I want very much to be true, whatever skepticisms linger (about the idea, not the book).
“Centralized, coercive political authority–the State–is not necessary.”
So writes Aeon Skoble, a philosopher possessed of an all-too-rare combination of rigorous logic, empathy, and imagination. This opening line ably and honestly captures the essence of his 2008 book, Deleting the State.
Something in me–at some level–says that Skoble’s desire for political anarchism must be wrong. But, admittedly, I have a hard time finding what it is, no matter how hard I try after reading Deleting the State. Not only can Skoble write very well (and, for an academic, very clearly), but he writes in such an earnest and intellectual manner, that it’s hard to disagree with him.
Some of my historian training might find fault with some of his philosophical training, but my criticisms at a scholarly level are rather minor. I’m only sorry I waited two years to delve into the book with any seriousness. I’ve been told by many of my friends how important this book is, and I’ve even lectured on Skoble’s arguments in my now sadly defunct course on American notions of order and disorder (frankly, a course on Anglo-American Christian Humanism in the twentieth century). But, only recently did I purchase and read the book.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of insightful and persuasive (as intellects and as souls) classical liberals–Larry Reed, Ben Stafford, David Beito, Carl Oberg, David Hart, Mark LeBar, Christina Mulligan, Howie Baetjer, Art Carden. I’ve also had meaningful conversations with political philosopher, R.J. Pestritto, and with economist and cultural critic, Mark Steckbeck. These encounters have only brought me back, time and time again this summer, to question the nature of the State and its proper role.
A disturbing exploration of the militarization of the once republican city of Washington, D.C.; some observations of the fascistic (well, fascism with a smile) TSA; the bullying and arrogance of our so-called president (wouldn’t it be great if he presided elsewhere?); the sheer stupidity of our Speaker of the House (where is John Randolph when we need him?); the realization that the Ohio Highway Patrol would rather collect fees than actually stop crime and defend the law have NOT done much to bolster my confidence in the State this summer.
An extremely well written book that must be taken seriously.
And, it’s the Fourth of July. Can any honest person imagine any one of the signers of the Declaration putting up with the kind of intrusions by our federal government and its hydra-like tentacles any and every one of us accepts every minute of every day in our lives? I repeat in OUR lives.
I’ll only quote one Founder (who didn’t sign the Declaration, but who took up arms and who wrote the Articles of Confederation) to show the immense gap between the statesmen of 1776 and the scoundrels of 2010:
“Our vigilance and our union are success and safety. Our negligence and our division are distress and death. They are worse—They are shame and slavery. Let us equally shun the benumbing stillness of overweening sloth, and the feverish activity of that ill informed zeal, which busies itself in maintaining little, mean and narrow opinions. Let us, with a truly wise generosity and charity, banish and discourage all illiberal distinctions, which may arise from differences in situation, forms of government, or modes of religion. Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers. Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property—that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away—that taxes imposed on us by parliament, do thus take it away—that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money, are taxes—that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed—that this opposition can never be effectual, unless it is the united effort of these provinces—that therefore BENEVOLENCE of temper towards each other, and UNANIMITY of counsels, are essential to the welfare of the whole—and lastly, that for this reason, every man among us, who in any manner would encourage either dissension, dissidence, or indifference, between these colonies, is an enemy to himself, and to his country. . . . Let us take care of our rights, and we therein take care of our prosperity. ‘SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.’” [John Dickinson, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter 12]
But, back to Skoble’s excellent book. The author makes clear that he is not arguing for a radical subjectivism or a moral anarchy. “The distinction between political authority and other sorts of authority is one which occupies considerable portions of what follow, but for now suffice it to say that I am not advancing an argument for moral subjectivism . . . . I am speaking here only of the authority of the state, of political leaders or rulers.”
There is much in the historical tradition of the West to support Skoble’s separation of political authority from cultural and other types of authority. One only has to look the medieval world (especially Iceland from 1000-1300) to see a world so full of tiny polycentric political authorities to realize that politics was, at best, secondary to the medieval world. Instead, Latin, Catholicism, and culture held together Christendom.
History has demonstrated the horrors of the State. It is, after all, responsible for murdering nearly 205,000,000 innocents in the 20th century. Add another 50,000,000 soldiers to the stats, and the 20th century ranks as the single bloodiest century in human history.
There are some places, however, where Skoble could be more specific. For example, he writes, “In the liberal tradition, there is no natural being called ‘a state.’” Here, I think author is being too gross in his language. I’m sure within certain classical liberal traditions, this is true. But, when I think of those I would easily put into the 19th century American classical liberal tradition–such as Thomas Jefferson, E.L. Godkin, or Grover Cleveland–I see no argument in favor of the artificiality of the state. There might be disagreements on what form the state might take, and it might very well come about through the agency of men and free will, but it is still natural.
Additionally, one generally begins the classical liberal tradition in the seventeenth century. Yet, many grand and important thinkers–from Socrates to Cicero to Aquinas to Calvin–had argued in favor of some form of political governance, though to what extent has been the question, prior to the recognized beginning of liberalism.
None of this, however, should be taken as anything serious in the way of criticizing Skoble’s book. No matter what historical nit-picking I might engage in, the book remains an important–probably vital, given the times–and necessary work. Skoble, indeed, has done a great service to the western and American traditions with Deleting the State.
Throughout the book, as mentioned above, Skoble demonstrates not only his vast grasp of thinkers from Hobbes forward, but he so earnestly engages each of these thinker that the reader simply cannot put the book down. While I still have serious reservations about political anarchy, my reservations must now linger at an emotional and instinctive levels, not at a rational or reasonable levels. Skoble has undercut every logical criticism I’ve had regarding the necessity of the State.