Saturday, February 15, 2020
The socialist state as an occasionalist god
Hobbes famously characterized his Leviathan state as a mortal god. Here’s another theological analogy, or set of analogies, which might illuminate the differences between kinds of political and economic orders – and in particular, the differences between socialism, libertarianism, and the middle ground natural law understanding of the state.
Recall that there are three general accounts of divine causality vis-à-vis the created order: occasionalism, mere conservationism, and concurrentism (to borrow ).
Occasionalism holds that God alone has causal efficacy, and the apparent causal power of created things is illusory. It seems to us that the sun causes the ice in your lemonade to melt, but it is really God causing it to melt, on the occasion when the sun is out. It seems that it is the cue ball that knocks the eight ball into the corner pocket, but it is really God who does so, on the occasion when the cue ball makes contact with it. And so on. Created things no more act than puppets do. Just as it is really the puppeteer who moves the puppet around the stage by means of its strings, with the puppet doing nothing, so too it is God who brings about every effect in the world. Indeed, created things are more like shadow puppets than the kind moved about by strings. The latter sort of puppet might have at least an indirect causal efficacy by virtue of accidentally knocking into other things, but a shadow puppet cannot do even that much. And neither can any created thing, according to occasionalism.
Mere conservationism, by contrast, holds that created things not only have causal power, but exercise it completely independently of God. God merely conserves them in existence as they do so, while playing no role in their efficacy. Though God keeps the sun in existence, it is the sun and the sun alone that causes your ice to melt. Though God keeps the cue ball in existence, it is the cue ball and the cue ball alone that causes the eight ball to move. And so on.
Concurrentism is a middle ground position. It holds, contra mere conservationism, that God not only conserves things in existence, but also must concur or cooperate with their activity if they are to have any efficacy. But it also holds, contra occasionalism, that created things do have real efficacy, even if not on their own. To borrow an example from Freddoso, when you use a piece of blue chalk to write on the chalkboard, the chalk would be unable to have this effect if you were not moving it. Left to itself, it would simply lie there. All the same, its nature makes a real contribution to the effect insofar as the letters would not be blue if the piece of chalk were not itself blue. Or consider a battery-powered toy car. The motor really does move the wheels of the car and thus the car itself, but would not be able to do so if not for the battery that powers it. God is like you in Freddoso’s example or like the battery in mine. He must concur or cooperate with the cause if it is to have its effect, but the cause nevertheless makes a real contribution of its own.
One reason to prefer concurrentism to these alternatives derives from the Scholastic principle agere sequitur esse or “action follows being.” On this principle, what a thing does reflects what it is. If created things don’t really do anything, as occasionalism holds, then it seems they have no reality at all. God alone is real, and when we observe what we take to be created things in action, what we are really observing is God in action. Occasionalism thus collapses into pantheism. Hence if pantheism is false, so too occasionalism must be false.
If, by contrast, created things can act entirely apart from God, then it seems (given that action follows being) that they can exist entirely apart from God. Divine conservation would go out the window with divine concurrence. Mere conservationism thus collapses into atheism, so that if atheism is false, so too mere conservationism must be false.
Concurrentism would thus stand as the only way rightly to understand the relationship between God and the world given that agere sequitur esse. The world has real causal efficacy of its own because its existence is really distinct from God’s, but it nevertheless requires God to concur in its causal activity just as it requires God to conserve it in existence. (For more on all of this, see , especially pp. 232-46.)
Now, what does all this have to do with the varieties of political order? Again, I would propose that there is an analogy here with the relationship between socialism, libertarianism, and the traditional natural law understanding of the state. In that I gave about a year ago, I noted that socialism involves centralized governmental ownership of the basic means of production and distribution, and that the ownership of a thing, in turn, entails having a bundle of rights over it. Hence, the more rights a government claims over the basic economic means of a society, the more it claims de facto ownership over them, and the closer it approximates to a socialist system. Socialism can come in degrees. (Listen to the lecture for qualifications and details.)
That is a point about the economic aspect of socialism, but as I noted in the same lecture, there is also an ethos or moral vision associated with it. In particular, it is a collectivist ethos according to which the basic economic means are owned and utilized by government for the sake of society as a whole, rather than for the sake of any individual or group within society. One could develop this ethos further in at least two ways. One could take society to be a kind of organism of which individual citizens are like mere dispensable cells or organs, to be sacrificed for the good of the whole if necessary in the way that an organ or cells can be shed for the sake of the preservation of the body. Totalitarian forms of socialism approximate this extreme form of collectivism. Alternatively, one could take all individual citizens to have inherent and equal value, and therefore not to be sacrificed for the good of the whole even if they are expected to work for the good of the whole. Egalitarian forms of socialism would correspond to this less extreme form of collectivism.
Now, when you use something that I own and you use it only in the ways that I direct you to use it, I can be said to be acting through you. You function merely as my agent. Your acts are really my acts insofar as you serve as a kind of extension of myself. For example, a lawyer or employee might function this way. Similarly, the more rights a socialist state would claim over both the resources that its citizens use and over decisions about the ways that they may use them, and the more such a state regards citizens as mere organs or cells of the social whole, the more fully it can be said to treat citizens merely as extensions of itself.
Here, I would suggest, we have something analogous to occasionalism, with the socialist state serving as a rough analogue to the occasionalist understanding of God and individual citizens roughly analogous to created things as conceived of on occasionalism. The more fully the citizens have to follow the directives of the state, the more akin they are to the inefficacious physical objects of occasionalism – mere puppets of which the state is the puppeteer. It is really the state that acts through them, just as for the occasionalist it is really God rather than the sun making the ice melt. And a totalitarian socialist state that treats society as a whole as if it were the only real substance, with individual citizens merely its cells, is analogous to an occasionalism that has collapsed into pantheism. Only society really exists, with the citizens being its appendages, just as on pantheism only God really exists and the things and events of our experience are really nothing more than his manifestations.
Now consider the opposite extreme from this point of view. Suppose you take the libertarian position that the state has absolutely no rights over any resources, or any say over how they are to be used, other than the bare minimum necessary in order to carry out the “minimal state” or “night watchman state” functions of protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and property. It is individual citizens who own almost all resources and have the right to decide how they are to be used, sold, given away, or otherwise exchanged in free market transactions. Government serves only to keep the system humming by enforcing contracts and punishing rights violations.
This, I submit, is roughly analogous to the mere conservationist model, on which God merely keeps things in existence from moment to moment while they operate completely independently of him. And the more extreme anarcho-capitalist version of libertarianism, which privatizes everything and abolishes the state entirely, is, by extension, analogous to deleting God from even a conserving role vis-à-vis the world, resulting in atheism.
Now, in As social animals, we come into the world not as individualist atoms having no need for or obligations toward others, but rather as members of communities – the family first and foremost, but also the local community, the nation, and ultimately the human race as a whole. As rational animals, we require a considerable range of freedom of thought and action in order to realize the ends toward which we are directed by our nature, including our social ends. I have expounded the traditional natural law conception of the state, which can be seen as a kind of middle ground position between socialism and libertarianism insofar as it is guided by the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity – principles which reflect our nature as rational social animals.
Solidarity and subsidiarity balance these considerations. As organic parts of larger social wholes, our flourishing as individuals goes hand in hand with that of those larger wholes, just as the flourishing of a part of the body goes hand in hand with that of the whole organism. The eye or the foot can flourish only if the whole body does, and the whole body can flourish only insofar as parts like the eye and foot do. Just as these parts must do their part relative to the whole body, so too must the individual do his part relative to the family, the nation, etc. And just as the whole organism must guarantee the health of its parts, so too do larger social orders have an obligation to each individual member. Solidarity thus rules out a libertarian or individualist model on which we have no obligations to others other than those we consent to. That would be like the eye or foot having no natural ordering to the good of the body as a whole, or the body as a whole having no natural ordering to the good of these parts.
On the other hand, given our rationality, the organic analogy is not a perfect one. Each of us has a capacity for individual thought and action that literal body parts do not have, and which entails that we are more than mere cells or organs of a larger social body. Literal body parts cannot understand themselves and their relation to the whole body, or choose whether and how to fulfill their roles relative to the whole. We can do so, and to flourish as rational agents we thus require as much freedom of thought and action as is consistent with our need for and obligations to larger social orders. There is also the consideration that the organic analogy is stronger the more proximate is the social whole of which one is a part. Our needs and obligations relative to the family are stronger than our needs and obligations relative to the nation, and our needs and obligations relative to the nation are stronger than our needs and obligations relative to humanity as a whole. Hence the natural law model entails a special regard for family and nation over the “global community,” even if the latter deserves some regard as well. Subsidiarity thus rules out any socialist absorption of the individual into a communal blob. It also requires that larger level social orders (such as governments) interfere with the actions of lower level orders (such as families and individuals) only where strictly necessary. The presumption is in favor of freedom of action, even if this presumption can in some cases be overridden.
Now, this natural law model of society is, I would suggest, roughly analogous to the concurrentist model of the created order’s relation to divine action. As rational animals, we really do act on our own rather than as mere extensions of society, just as created things really do have causal efficacy of their own rather than being nothing more than manifestations of God’s action. As social animals, we nevertheless really do depend on larger social wholes for our capacity to act as rational creatures, just as created things depend on God for their capacity to act at all. The natural law model is a middle ground conception of the relation of individual and society falling between the socialist and libertarian extremes, just as the concurrentist model is a middle ground conception of the relation of created things to God falling between the occasionalist and mere conservationist extremes. Or to extend the analogy in a slightly more fine-grained way, the sequence:
pantheism, occasionalism, concurrentism, mere conservationism, atheism
is roughly analogous to the sequence:
totalitarian socialism, egalitarian socialism, natural law, libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism
I suggest only that there is an interesting parallelism here, and not that the analogy could be pushed much further than what I have already said. And it goes without saying that there are all sorts of ways that the analogy might break down. Nor am I claiming that there are any interesting practical implications of this analogy. It just struck me that there is an analogy here, that’s all. It is also important not to misunderstand the point of the analogy. I am not claiming that the state is divine, or that there is necessarily any special connection between anarcho-capitalism and atheism, or any special connection between socialism and pantheism! None of those things is true, and none of them follow from the analogy.