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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A Framework For Thinking About Civil Society


"Without an all-powerful leviathan state, Hobbesian anarchy and its attendant state of war can undermine the stability and even the possibility of civil society. However, a leviathan state with unlimited powers, once instituted, also engulfs the very civil society that it is tasked to protect. As long as the individual's right to self-preservation is protected by such a state, we might regard it as acceptable, a necessary evil.

We might, however, also want to be vigilant about the possibility of leviathan evolving into a threat to other important rights that Hobbes may have undervalued:

Leviathan can become tyrannical : threatening to violate individual rights to liberty, property, and general well-being; allowing its appetite for power to supplant the rational basis of its existence.

Leviathan can become an authoritarian perfectionist state: violating individual autonomy and self-determination, or the right of individuals to plan, pursue, and revise for themselves their own life plans.

Leviathan can atomise the very civil society that it was designed to protect, leaving behind an attenuated public space characterised by "mass" politics and society composed of frightened, self-centred, socially inept, and narrow-minded individuals.

Leviathan can become a central economic planner, destroying the efficiencies of the market, and leading the way to economic and then political crises. "



J. S. Mill (On Liberty) wrote about liberty as freedom of the individual from society and the state. He warned against the dangers of excessive intervention by a bureaucratic government.

"The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes - will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish."

Reading: J. S. Mill, ed. Stefan Collini, On Liberty and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1989), pp. 109-15.

Which stand should we take ?

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