Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Public Order

     Over on The Politics of Well-Being, Mr. Jules Evans has raised a question about a comment from your author.  His question deserves a longer reply than the ususal comment form allows, so it seems appropriate to answer him here.

     The discussion had been about what Mr. Evans described as “classical virtues.”  His point elicited this reply:  “…it’s somewhat syllogistic: (1) Public order comes from either government coercion or private virtue. (2) Government coercion is inconsistent with liberty. (3) Ergo, liberty requires private virtue. Naturally, the reality is not so purely exclusive. That is, public order always derives from a mixture of police action and private good conduct. But … the more we restrain ourselves the less government we need (the case of liberty), so naturally the less we restrain ourselves, the more we need government (the case of tyranny, whether hard or soft).”

     One virtue of the Internet is the ability to test ideas.  Another is the ability to test how those ideas are expressed.  In this case, there was apparently a defect in expression because while the point on public order should not be controversial, it nonetheless attracted the main disagreement.  Here is the reply in full:

     “Some points on your point 1: Is public order alone the goal? Are we looking just for order, or something greater than that - community, creativity, a flourishing society?

     “And whatever the ‘good society’ is, it doesn’t come just from public coercion or private virtue.

     “That is implying everything involving the state or public politics is coercive, and its impossible for there to be public virtue, or public agreement.

     “Thats an anarchist position, very much against the Greco-Roman idea of the importance of serving your country.

     “Thinkers like Aristotle or Cicero would say that politics involves engaging in the issues of your society, it involves opening up to broader concerns, and it involves finding compromises and engaging in civic and civil debate. It also involves courage, temperance and wisdom. So taking part in politics is, they would say, an important part of what makes up an individual ‘good life’.

     “Also, surely the state has some role to play in the creation of private virtue, at the very least through schools? And, arguably, through prisons - if you hope prisons are more than lock ups.

     “Thats what the Greeks thought, anyway - that the state should produce good citizens, through an education programme.”

     Public order is obviously not the only goal for society, but all the other goals of society depend on public order.  It is necessary, of course, but not sufficient (of course).  “Creativity,” “community,” and “flourishing” are impossible when criminal gangs rob, intimidate, and murder the population.  Likewise, of course the good society “doesn’t come just from public coercion,” but who would call an Ethiopian village plagued by rape squads a “good society”?  Even our modern terminology of international relations acknowledges that fact:  Ethiopia is a “failed state” precisely because there is no public order.

     Now consider Mr. Evans’s point more fully: “And whatever the ‘good society’ is, it doesn’t come just from public coercion or private virtue.  That is implying everything involving the state or public politics is coercive, and its impossible for there to be public virtue, or public agreement.”  Actually, public virtue and public agreement are clearly possible, but in their best forms they require private virtue.  There can be public agreement under tyranny, of course, as when we see unanimity of opinion among North Koreans on the value of their Dear Leader.  But the best kinds of public agreement are not motivated by fear, and clearly Mr. Evans means the best kinds.  This kind of public virtue positively requires private virtue as a necessary pre-condition. 

     When citizens accept the importance of serving their country, as Mr. Evans puts it, they are displaying private virtue.  They do not have to be drafted into military service (a coercive example) because they volunteer.  They do not have to be taxed to support welfare programs because they contribute willingly to aid the poor.  They give their time and abilities to the local fire department, or blood bank, or the animal shelter.  The more people serve the community in these ways, motivated by their own private virtue, the less the government has to step in and take over these functions.  These are all positive examples, but the negative ones are even more fundamental.  They involve restraint.  People must either refrain from mutual injury, through an exercise of private virtue, private good conduct, or they must be restrained.

     Mr. Evans is right when he says that Cicero and Aristotle considered taking part in politics part of the good life.  However, again, such activity requires that individual citizens govern themselves.  The free political life that Cicero enjoyed after Sulla’s death did not survive the First Triumvirate.  The degeneration of private virtue was a commonplace of Roman moralists, including Cicero, but a more empirical measure can be taken by the rise of the proxy gangs in the fifties BC.  Milo and Clodius turned the streets of Rome into a battleground because they sought personal advancement at the expense of the public good—the res publica, to use a favorite term.  Their commitment to restrain their own conduct had degenerated.  They, and others in the City, abandoned private virtue and with it the benevolent public order that comes from mutual restraint and respect for community.  In the end, when hardly anyone was left who was capable of private virtue, the legions of Augustus imposed tyrannical public order—and the Republic died.

     Regarding the role of the state in public education, Mr. Evans’s description is more a feature of Plato’s philosophy than of any real city.  At Athens, the law required citizens to provide education to their sons, but the city did not pay for that education.  At Sparta there was universal state education, which even included girls, but it would hardly be a model for any modern nation.  By contrast, there was little or no state-funded education during the entire period of the Roman Repubic.  Rome was the freest state of antiquity and she preserved her freedom longer than any other.  While the nature of Roman education may or may not have contributed to her long history of liberty, state-funded education was clearly not necessary for that liberty.

     The diffidence with which Conservatives approach state control over education arises from the historical examples that show how dangerous such control can be.  Once a state funds education it will soon control education.  Once a state controls education, there is a danger that it will begin to enforce one or another essentially political viewpoint.  Today, in American schools, that view is the received agenda of the political Left, which is why homeschooling is such a valuable counterweight.  No one here is advocating that all the public schools be closed.  But it is useful, healthy, to have lawful alternatives to those schools.

     The example of education is just one of many reasons for seeking public order through private rather than governmental effort.  Perhaps the most urgent reason, though, is that political entities absolutely abhor chaos and will give up liberty to obtain order.  Aristotle made this observation when he outlined the typical procession of constitutions from democracy to mob rule to tyranny.  In the final analysis, people prefer security and stability to liberty.  If limited government fails, as it did at Rome, people eventually will accept an Augustus who brings peace.  To cite modern examples, consider the shift toward authoritarianism in Russia after the disorderly 1990s, or the far more dangerous shift in Germany toward National Socialism after the chaos of the 1920s.  This tendency is natural in the human species, and it has profound implications for policy.

     We must rule ourselves, or we will surely be ruled.


  1. In some offline correspondence, one reader has questioned just how willing people are to trade liberty for security. I think it's best to sort this out by looking at extant states.

    While there are many, many dictatorships in the world, there are nowhere near as many "failed states" like Ethiopia. Nature abhors a vacuum, and politics abhors chaos. Usually, when a society has degenerated into chaos, a strongman will come along pretty quickly and impose order by fear. It's not that people prefer a dictator to freedom, it's just that in the end they will not revolt against a dictator without a clear path to a safe regime change. Think of North Korea, Saddam's Iraq, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, etc. We see many dictators whose populations do not revolt against them. Since they do not revolt, if we judge by actions we must conclude they are more afraid of something else than the dictator's regime. I submit that "something else" is the unknown: chaos.

    On the other hand, when the tyranny is soft--the direction Europe is heading--people eagerly give away their liberty in exchange for security, usually without even noticing. So, it's important to distinguish between hard tyranny, which people tolerate out of fear, and soft tyranny, which is a siren song.

  2. A worth reading article though a dilemma to choose between liberty and security.

    In the context of a country, I'm support the theory that public order and security is a foundations to arrange everything although step by step. Without it, there is nothing that we can do besides just saying "chaotic".