The State and Legitimacy: Partial Reply to Karras

Nicola Karras’ tale of her becoming a conservative is blowing up the (nerdy political philosophy) interspheres.  Definitely worth the read.  [Also worth the read, Freddie’s pushback].  I’ll have more to say (hopefully) on this discussion, which has to do with postmodern conservatism among other things, but I want to pull out one particularly important segment from Nicola’s piece (you should really read the whole thing–it’s very thought provoking):

The fundamental political problem, I’ve concluded, is in how we think about the state. If we look to it as arbiter of legitimacy, safety, or morality, we have already neglected the sources of real meaning in our lives. State intervention is dangerous not because it’s “coercion” (I don’t mind coercion), but because of its inhumanity. The more we depend on government, the less connection we have with one another.

Long-time readers will know I get uncomfortable with talking about “the fundamental” political problem.  As if there was one and only one for all times and places. It’s not that I don’t think Karras is altogether wrong about the question of the danger of the state becoming a legitimator (leading to de-humanization).  Very often I think the course of events she describes does take place exactly as she says.

But by framing the discussion in the way she has, it leaves it open to someone pointing to ANY single possible counterfactual which then wil show that the state question is not THE fundamental problem, at least not in all times & places.  iow, She might be going for all and come up with nothing in the minds of some readers. Instead, I would say the state question is A fundamental not THE fundamental issue involved in political philosophy–that is it should always be taken into account but is not the sole or even always primary determinative element.

So some counter pieces of evidence that I think downgrade her formulation from THE to A.

First off without a Leviathan, as Hobbes would say, the state of nature  being nasty, brutish, and short, the war of the all against all, is the reality.  Following Weber one of the hallmarks of the nation-state is the monopoly on force within its borders.  Has the Leviathan been de-humanizing?  Perhaps.  Is the alternative superior? See Iraq, the Congo, Sudan, The Balkans in the 90s for a view of the other side.  Any de-humanization going on there? Say a little bit more than having to register my gun?

Or an example within US history that’s more in the front of my mind.  The Civil Rights movement which via the fed gov’t enforced the end of legal segregation.  That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes and abuse of power in e.g. forced integration, but if you were in the position of a black person living in White Rule South, would Karras’ point make any sense to you? Would you see the federal state’s actions as dehumanizing you?

Karras mentions a triad of “legitimacy, safety, and morality”.  How would these apply or not apply in this case?

Certainly safety would fit here (i.e. not being publicly hanged for example or terrorized by guys in white sheets).  Legitimacy–video here of James Meredith being the first “negro” (as the video says) to attend Ole Miss.  Was that legitimating?  Because the power of the federal government was necessary did Meredith cede the things that really matter in life?  Was he out of touch with the real source of meaning in his life?  Does these questions even apply in his case?  Was it inhumane?

My only point again just to be clear is not to invoke some leftist adoration of the state.  It is often as Karras says.  In Catholic Social Thought, there is the principle of subsidiarity, namely that those who are closest to the scene of the action and are capable should be the ones who should be handling the issue.  And in general, I support that view.  However, there are occassions I believe, when the situation is set up such that subsidiarity can not be actually practiced or (worse) the principle of subsidiarity is used to prop a local majority oppressive rule over a minority.  And in such cases, you may need some bigger outside entity with more legitimacy/power to break that power structure up.  Keeping in mind that it should be used sparingly and will inevitably over-react and tends towards seeing everything as nails to be hammered.

My deeper point is that by not locating our own context/position, political discussions that are abstract (What is The Fundamental Issue?) assume a one-size-fits-all answer for all times and places.  And they can inadvertently end up supporting a point of view I doubt (esp. in this case) the author really holds to.  Moreover, a great deal depends on our location in terms of what we see/pick up on.

If postmodernism (conservative and/or liberal) taught us anything it’s that meaning is contextual and that contexts are never-ending, hence all our statements (including this one) are provisional.  [Provisional however can be a very long time–point to pomocons].  My take is the best way to deal with that reality is to be as honest as we can about our own position and just say it out. In that way I think there is more an invitation to debate and dialogue than a framing that says “X Issue is THE One” and then creates sharp divisions between those who stand on either side of X. When often, the reality, I would say, is never that clear or simple.

I think less is more in this case.  If Karras could detail the contexts in which what she is saying she thinks are true, I think her critique could have a great deal more bite.  I for one would be very interested to read such an analysis.  I like where she is going with her criticism, but it needs a better frame to hold it I think.

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Published in: on October 11, 2008 at 10:39 am  Comments (1)  
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