Is the State Your Father or Your Mother?
By Pierre Lemieux
The problem of the relations between the state and the individual was illustrated by a short Twitter exchange with a frequent contradictor of mine. He tweeted:
One of those general moral/political rules is the social contract, that Libertarians routinely deny … Or if there is such a contract, it is with the globe, thus justifying sacrificing the interests of the country of your birth that raised you.
Oh your country raised you? Is ze/hir your father or your mother?
There was a mistake in my reply: I should have simply written “ze” instead of “ze/hir.” I admit I am not very much on top of that. Of course, anybody might use any noun or pronoun while referring to zirself, although I would deny that ze has the right to impose hir preference on others, especially with the armed help of the state. At any rate, my correspondent had a more scholarly response:
I was thinking of Socrates when he said the Laws of Athens were what made him into the man he turned out to be, for better or worse…
I suspected that. That’s the ancient concept of liberty, which cost Socrates his life. See https://econlib.org/governing-ourselves/, and especially the classic and short text by Benjamin Constant linked there.
The exchange suggested that, as much as he defines himself as a conservative, my correspondent is an unconscious Rousseauist. It is surprising how many people are intellectual slaves to old Jean-Jacques Rousseau (to paraphrase a famous formulation by Keynes in the last paragraph of his General Theory), even if they don’t know it. In Of the Social Contract(1762), Rousseau wrote:
Furthermore, the citizen is no longer the judge of the dangers to which the law desires him to expose himself; and when the prince says to him: “It is expedient for the State that you should die,” he ought to die, because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present, and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature, but a gift made conditionally by the State.
Opposed to this approach stands not only the whole classical-liberal tradition but also Antigone, the eponymous heroine of Sophocles’s play. Antigone was written around 442 B.C., that is, before the death of Socrates was told in a Plato dialogue. In the Western tradition, the relations between the state and the individual are an old issue. King Creon said:
Whomsoever the city may appoint, that man must be obeyed, in little things and great, in just things and unjust … But anarchy is the worst of evils.
The MIT translation linked to above uses “disobedience” instead of “anarchy.” But Creon probably meant something closer to the latter, as Sophocles wrote “ἀναρχία” (anarchia). The French translation on my bookshelf, by Robert Pignarre, renders the term by its French equivalent, “anarchie.”
The important point is that Antigone did not agree with Creon. She disobeyed an edict of his and did not try to evade her responsibility. She believed there were laws above the state.