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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Joseph Sobran on a Divine Right to the Monopoly to use Force

By Joseph Sobran, in an excerpt from The Reluctant Anarchist
As is fairly well known by now, I went to work as a young man for Buckley at National Review and later became a syndicated columnist. I found my niche in conservative journalism as a critic of liberal distortions of the U.S. Constitution, particularly in the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion, pornography, and “freedom of expression.” 

Gradually I came to see that the conservative challenge to liberalism’s jurisprudence of “loose construction” was far too narrow. Nearly everything liberals wanted the Federal Government to do was unconstitutional. The key to it all, I thought, was the Tenth Amendment, which forbids the Federal Government to exercise any powers not specifically assigned to it in the Constitution. But the Tenth Amendment had been comatose since the New Deal, when Roosevelt’s Court virtually excised it. 

[Breaker quote: The conservative illusion]This meant that nearly all Federal legislation from the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond had been unconstitutional. Instead of fighting liberal programs piecemeal, conservatives could undermine the whole lot of them by reviving the true (and, really, obvious) meaning of the Constitution. Liberalism depended on a long series of usurpations of power. 

Around the time of Judge Robert Bork’s bitterly contested (and defeated) nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, conservatives spent a lot of energy arguing that the “original intent” of the Constitution must be conclusive. But they applied this principle only to a few ambiguous phrases and passages that bore on specific hot issues of the day — the death penalty, for instance. About the general meaning of the Constitution there could, I thought, be no doubt at all. The ruling principle is that whatever the Federal Government isn’t authorized to do, it’s forbidden to do. 

That alone would invalidate the Federal welfare state and, in fact, nearly all liberal legislation. But I found it hard to persuade most conservatives of this. Bork himself took the view that the Tenth Amendment was unenforceable. If he was right, then the whole Constitution was in vain from the start.
 

I never thought a constitutional renaissance would be easy, but I did think it could play an indispensable role in subverting the legitimacy of liberalism. Movement conservatives listened politely to my arguments, but without much enthusiasm. They regarded appeals to the Constitution as rather pedantic and, as a practical matter, futile — not much help in the political struggle. Most Americans no longer even remembered whatusurpation meant. Conservatives themselves hardly knew. 

Of course they were right, in an obvious sense. Even conservative courts (if they could be captured) wouldn’t be bold enough to throw out the entire liberal legacy at once. But I remained convinced that the conservative movement had to attack liberalism at its constitutional root. 

In a way I had transferred my patriotism from America as it then was to America as it had been when it still honored the Constitution. And when had it crossed the line? At first I thought the great corruption had occurred when Franklin Roosevelt subverted the Federal judiciary; later I came to see that the decisive event had been the Civil War, which had effectively destroyed the right of the states to secede from the Union. But this was very much a minority view among conservatives, particularly at National Review, where I was the only one who held it... My fellow Christians have argued that the state’s authority is divinely given. They cite Christ’s injunction “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and St. Paul’s words “The powers that be are ordained of God.” But Christ didn’t say which things — if any — belong to Caesar; his ambiguous words are far from a command to give Caesar whatever he claims. And it’s notable that Christ never told his disciples either to establish a state or to engage in politics. They were to preach the Gospel and, if rejected, to move on. He seems never to have imagined the state as something they could or should enlist on their side. 

At first sight, St. Paul seems to be more positive in affirming the authority of the state. But he himself, like the other martyrs, died for defying the state, and we honor him for it; to which we may add that he was on one occasion a jailbreaker as well. Evidently the passage in Romans has been misread. It was probably written during the reign of Nero, not the most edifying of rulers; but then Paul also counseled slaves to obey their masters, and nobody construes this as an endorsement of slavery. He may have meant that the state and slavery were here for the foreseeable future, and that Christians must abide them for the sake of peace. Never does he say that either is here forever. 

[Breaker quote: Anarchy, the state, and chaos]St. Augustine took a dim view of the state, as a punishment for sin. He said that a state without justice is nothing but a gang of robbers writ large, while leaving doubt that any state could ever be otherwise. St. Thomas Aquinas took a more benign view, arguing that the state would be necessary even if man had never fallen from grace; but he agreed with Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all, a doctrine that would severely diminish any known state. 

The essence of the state is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as “that which turns a person into a thing — either corpse or slave.” It may sometimes be a necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it. 

It’s entirely possible that states — organized force — will always rule this world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is good. 

For most people, anarchy is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence, antinomianism — things they hope the state can control or prevent. The term state, despite its bloody history, doesn’t disturb them. Yet it’s the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can’t assert a plausible right to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda apparatus, can do that. This is what legitimacy means. Anarchists obviously need a more seductive label. 

“But what would you replace the state with?” The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be “replaced.” 

Christians, and especially Americans, have long been misled about all this by their good fortune. Since the conversion of Rome, most Western rulers have been more or less inhibited by Christian morality (though, often enough, not so’s you’d notice), and even warfare became somewhat civilized for centuries; and this has bred the assumption that the state isn’t necessarily an evil at all. But as that morality loses its cultural grip, as it is rapidly doing, this confusion will dissipate. More and more we can expect the state to show its nature nakedly. 

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