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De Jouvenel, Nisbet, and the antagonisms of individual association and State power

February 10, 2011

The more I study, the more cynical I become as to any intentional progress by individuals in society.  Reading through Bertrand de Jouvenel and Robert Nisbet, they present to me problems with relying on the State for redistribution and a social safety net, along with the trouble of individuals preventing the rise of a monolithic state, respectively.

Two strong claims in De Jouvenel’s  Ethics of Redistribution condemn a redistributionist policy: it undermines “the sense of personal responsibility” in the citizenry of a polity, and it becomes equally undesirable for “the impetus it gives to the baleful process of centralization.”  De Jouvenel proceeds to make other (equal, if not stronger) claims, but I’ll ignore those for the purpose of this post.

Loss of personal responsibility takes many forms; not only do individuals do less in the spirit and for the preservation of a strong community, but associations previously dedicated to the eradication or improvement of a perceived social problem either shift focus or disappear completely.  It appears to be the case that when the burden of a social problem shifts from the community and society at large to the State, personal responsibility evaporates, whether or not the State eradicates or improves on the perceived social problem.  Gamm and Putnam’s 1999 paper The Growth of Voluntary Associations in America, 1840-1940 provides an interesting analysis of the rise and decline of voluntary associations.

Or, as De Jouvenel writes,

“while relief is an unquestionable social obligation which the destruction of neighborliness, of responsible aristocracies, and of Church wealth has laid on the State for want of any other agency, it is open to discussion whether policies of redistribution are the best means of dealing with the problem of raising median working incomes, whether they can be effective, and whether they do not come into conflict with other legitimate social objectives.”

Paradoxically, it seems the decline of individualism and the rise of state collectivism has led to the decline of individual associations and personal responsibility for the sake of an increased state that is incompetent (or structurally deficient) in addressing perceived social problems.

Nisbet ascertains the same difficulty of the rise of a monolithic state to effectively curb perceived social problems; however, the situation results from the atomization of individuals by progressive political and economic forces, e.g. the rise of modern capitalism and the influence of rational cures for social structures, leading to a rejection of custom and tradition.

As Nisbet regards it,

“the modern release of the individual from the traditional ties of religion, class, family, and community has made him free–free at least in the negative sense of disenchantment with, and aloofness from, the old moral certainties.  But for many individuals this emancipation has resulted not in a creative sense of independence but in a stultifying feeling of aloneness and responsibility.”

This “modern release of the individual” from tradition caused alienation and insecurity that precipitated monolithic power.  Monolithic power “is nurtured by the existence of masses of rootless individuals, turning with mounting desperation to centralized authority as a refuge from dislocation and moral emptiness.”  The destruction of communities and voluntary associations provides a vacuum that, as a result of the severance of the individual from tradition and custom, cannot be filled by any institution except the State.

Nisbet’s argument contains some tenets objectionable to libertarians, but it holds a key insight: society is not an aggregation of individuals, but a community of individuals inextricably linked by tradition, custom, and autonomous social groups, which provide a counterweight to the expansion of State power.  “The religious groups, family, neighborhood, occupational association–these, declared Bonald, are the necessary supports of men’s lives.”  Invest a sense of personal responsibility in individuals to improve and preserve their community, and expanding State power cannot penetrate such a society.

What troubles me is the practicality of the process to revert again to stronger community and a greater personal responsibility for perceived social problems in the current state.  Trumping the ethical and utilitarian foundations of redistribution while demonstrating the decline of community cohesion due to the rise of modernism and capitalism defines the problem, but does not begin to solve it.

How can we reinvigorate a sense of personal responsibility?  How do we withdraw from State reliance for the alleviation of perceived social problems?  Perhaps economic proofs of the failure of State action to improve society can build a dialogue, but until libertarians (and conservatives or, for that matter, socialists) articulate a strong alternative while enacting their methods, progress and improvement (utilitarian, moral and ethical) remains theoretical.

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