(Statist) Politics as Household Management

In a previous post, Voting, Moral Hazard, and Like Buttons, I discussed the moral hazards of voting and why democracy does not legitimize the state or protect our liberty. I also discussed how statist democracy, particularly representative democracy, is manipulative and conducive to top-down central planning of society. (Statist) politics tends to reduce all basic social issues to problems requiring administrative manipulation. In this post, I’m going to delve into this issue further and draw upon insights by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition1 to illustrate how (statist) politics is inherently an attempt to run society as one massive organization, organism, or machine.

Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the differences between action (praxis)2 and work – and between politics, which involves action, and fabrication or making (poi?sis), which involves work – has negative implications for the central planning of society that is characteristic of modern representative-democratic states. In particular, I have in mind her criticism of Plato, and to a lesser extent Aristotle, regarding their tendency to view society as a sort of organization and politics as the running of society as such an organization – or, in their words, politics as akin to household management. This fits with the tendency in many cultures to refer to one’s country as “the Fatherland” or “the Motherland” and with socialists and communitarians (on the left and the right) essentially modeling their ideal society after the family.

Arendt defines action as “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” (p. 107); it is directly and intimately related to politics, which Arendt links to Scottish Enlightenment and Hayekian notions of spontaneous order (p. 185). “To act, in its most general sense, means to take initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, [meaning] ‘to begin’, ‘to lead’, and eventually ‘to rule’, indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere)” (p. 177). Work, on the other hand, is

the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. (p. 7)

We need not accept in its entirety Arendt’s conception of action and work with all its implications and baggage in order to appreciate the difference between dealing with other human beings as ends-in-themselves (i.e., voluntarily and politically) and treating them like beasts who must be tamed, or raw materials for the shaping, or living tools, or mere parts of the machinery of the state.3 A famous Marxist phrase is apropos here: the formal democratic process of the state, particularly in the form of representative democracy, amounts to the “replacement of the government of men by the administration of things.”4

Arendt identifies an element of violence in all making (fabrication), and observes government foundings and legislation to be a kind of making (pp. 139-140, 153; 228). In “legislating and the execution of decisions by vote” men “‘act like craftsmen’: the result of their actions is a tangible product, and its process has a clearly recognizable end.” Plato and Aristotle prefer ‘making’ because “of its greater reliability. It is as though they had said that if men only renounce their capacity for action, with its futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome, there could be a remedy for the frailty of human affairs” (p. 195). This aversion to spontaneous order and genuine politics is pervasive in political philosophy. (I’ll have more to say on my distinction between genuine politics and statist politics in a later blogpost, or you can read chapters 6 & 7 of my dissertation.)

Escape from the frailty of human affairs into the solidity of quiet and order has in fact so much to recommend it that the greater part of political philosophy since Plato could easily be interpreted as various attempts to find theoretical foundations and practical ways for an escape from politics altogether. The hallmark of all such escapes is the concept of rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and the others forced to obey. (p. 222)

In applying to “its administration the [then] currently recognized maxims for a well-ordered household,” Plato was quite aware that he was proposing “a revolutionary transformation of the polis [Greek city-state]” (p. 223; cf. p. 230.). The treating of society as an organization to be run according to a plan has the effect of “banishing the citizens from the public realm” while they leave the ruler to “attend to public affairs” (p. 221). (Statist) politics increasingly becomes a series of “back-room deals” among a technocratic and plutocratic elite, increasingly hereditary, wherein decisions are made without the participation of the governed.

Arendt calls a delusion the idea “that we can ‘make’ something in the realm of human affairs – ‘make’ institutions or laws, for instance as we make tables and chairs, or make men ‘better’ or ‘worse’ –  . . . it is conscious despair of all action, political and non-political, coupled with the utopian hope that it may be possible to treat men as one treats other ‘material’”5 (p. 188).

In the Republic, the philosopher-king applies the ideas as the craftsman applies his rules and standards; he ‘makes’ his City as the sculptor makes a statue, and in the final Platonic work these same ideas have even become laws which need only be executed.

Within this frame of reference, the emergence of a utopian political system which could be construed in accordance with a model by somebody who has mastered the techniques of human affairs becomes almost a matter of course; Plato, who was the first to design a blueprint for the making of political bodies, has remained the inspiration for all later utopias.6

Such centrally planned schemes of government must inevitably “break down quickly under the weight of [the] reality . . . of the real human relationships they [cannot] control.” Such administration would require truly divine qualities (p. 227). Beyond the impracticability of central planning, of running society like an organization, there is the moral dimension that legislation in both the foundational and general sense, insofar as it rests ultimately upon violence, treats human beings as means rather than as ends-in-themselves and thus gives us a prima facie reason to condemn it as immoral and unjust.

  1. All page numbers, provided for your convenience, refer to the 1998 2nd Edition. 

  2. Arendt uses the term ‘action’ more narrowly than do the praxeologists of the Austrian School. 

  3. On the different ways in which the ancients and the moderns viewed men as less-than-human objects of legislation, see p. 188 n. 15. 

  4. Quoted from Murray Rothbard’s “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” p. 8. Not incidentally, Rothbard relates that this phrase can be traced back ultimately to the radical nineteenth century French liberals Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. “And so, too, may the concept of the ‘class struggle’; except that for Dunoyer and Comte the inherently antithetical classes were not businessmen vs. workers, but the producers in society (including free businessmen, workers, peasants, etc.) versus the exploiting classes constituting, and privileged by, the State apparatus.” 

  5. Make men ______. Fill in the blank: e.g., “make” men better or worse, moral, patriotic, obedient, good citizens and consumers, do this or don’t do that, pursue a unified goal like cogs in a machine, and so forth, but primarily in the sense of constructing them into something. See, for example, recent books like Robert George’s Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (1995), Walter Burns’s Making Patriots (2002), and Nancy Bristow’s Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War (1997). 

  6. The last phrase in the second quoted passage implies that Plato was the first to actually attempt the feats mistakenly credited to the great Founder-Legislators (e.g., Lycurgus, Solon, Romulus, Numa), and this corresponds to Hayek’s observation that the idea of legislating law in Western civilization saw its first full development in ancient Greece. 

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