On the National State: Empire and Anarchy (Yoram Hazony, Winter 2002, Azure)

The national state is one of the central ideas in the political tradition of the West, and it is in many respects the lynchpin of this tradition, serving as the premise—often a hidden premise, but a necessary one nonetheless—on which is founded our understanding of ideas such as popular sovereignty, the rule of law, and representative government, as well as our conceptions of personal liberty and civil equality. These and similar ideas emerged in the wake of the consolidation of the classical national states, and especially England, as the most humane alternative to the two major ordering principles that had been previously known to Europe: The idea of the centralized power of the imperial state, as represented by the memory of the Roman empire, and as pursued by the Catholic Church in such guises as the Spanish empire and the German Holy Roman Empire; and the ordered anarchy of the feudal system, in which the state often hardly existed, and even the right to make law and wage war was delegated down to countless local nobles arrayed in ever-shifting combinations.

The tyranny and disorder represented by these two alternatives was of course not new; it had persisted in nearly all times and places in history. But for Christians, especially after the advent of Calvinism and the Church of England had brought about the widespread circulation of the Hebrew Bible translated into the vernacular, there seemed to be another alternative, inspired by the history of ancient Israel. The Bible depicted the twin scourges faced by the Jews in terms that were hardly less apt for the passage of centuries: The fear, on the one hand, of a barbaric anarchy such as that represented by the period of the Judges; and that of enslavement to the imperial states represented by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, on the other. But it also described a recourse: The establishment of a united Jewish kingdom, whose purpose was to provide relief from anarchy, while at the same time resisting the world-embracing pretensions of the imperial states.

This biblical alternative, the theoretical counterpart to what we today call the national state, seems to have had a sympathetic hearing among the English from the dawn of their history. They had glimpsed a reflection of themselves in it as early as Bede’s Ecclesiastic History of the English People, which appeared in the year 730, and which had already then recognized the potential of the national state for freeing the English from the perpetual strife that persisted among their own petty kingdoms, as well as from the constant threat of subjugation to foreign invaders.8 For Tudor England, sustaining itself only with the greatest difficulty against domination by imperial Spain, this national alternative became the inspiration and the spiritual bulwark of English liberty. Such sentiment, familiar to us through Shakespeare’s nationalist histories from Richard II to Henry V—written in the years immediately following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588—was accompanied during Elizabeth’s reign by intense public interest in English-language translations of the Bible, culminating in John Lyly’s conception of England as “a new Israel, his chosen and peculiar people.” It was this new Israel, as it proved its mettle against imperial power, that subsequently became the model for the contemporary national state, throughout Western Europe and beyond.9

Now, if we are to understand the significance of this political tradition of the national state, we must first ask what characterized the political world prior to the introduction of this new ideal. In other words, in a world of empire and anarchy, what is it that distinguishes between the one ideal type and the other? It seems to me that the distinction can be grasped most readily if we understand it to be rooted in a difference over principal political loyalty: In speaking of an imperial state, I have in mind a state whose jurisdiction tends towards the rule over all, whereas anarchy tends towards the rule of each one over himself alone. This is not to say, of course, that there has ever been a perfect anarchy in which each one ruled himself alone and was loyal to none other, any more than that there has ever been an imperial state that succeeded in ruling over all of mankind. But it is nevertheless true that what we mean by an empire is a state that is in principle boundless in terms of its extent, so that the individual proffers loyalty and obedience to a jurisdiction that might easily include, if not today then tomorrow, any other member of humanity. Under anarchy, on the other hand, the individual proffers loyalty and obedience to a collective whose bounds are sharply drawn, and circumscribed only to those people with whom he could in principle be personally acquainted—whether they be members of his family, clan, tribe, manor, town, militia, or gang. In other words, anarchy is the rule of the familiar man, who is presumed to care directly for the needs of the individual; whereas empire is the rule of the universal mind, which is presumed to care directly for the needs of mankind.

Understood in this way, we find that neither empire nor anarchy are concepts concerned in the first instance with numeric quantities such as the extent of the territory or population of the state, or the number of its competitors. Rather, we recognize the difference between empire and anarchy as a substantive difference in the nature of the political allegiance of the individual. For if allegiance is given to a familiar individual or lord, and if allegiance to this lord will remain unshaken on the day he withdraws his allegiance from his own lord and gives it to another, then there can be no question but that this is anarchy; and this is true even if we are no longer speaking of a crime family of a dozen individuals, but of a feudal fiefdom the size of half of France. The anarchic or feudal loyalty remains always with the particular and concrete individual who is our lord, and to whom we have sworn allegiance. Under empire, on the other hand, one’s allegiance is never to a familiar individual, but rather to the empire itself, whose ruler is distinguished precisely by the fact that he is so remote and unapproachable as to in effect be no more than an abstraction. If the appointed governor of an imperial province should on a given day determine to go over to the enemy, it should surprise us greatly to find that this defection would entail the automatic defection of the entire province. For the people of this province care not whether the governor is this individual or that one. His identity is immaterial, since their allegiance is to the abstraction of the empire, of which the governor is no more than a momentary representative. Indeed, the treason of a high official, although unusual, is known to every imperial state, no matter how well regimented, and can take place without altering the fundamental character of the empire. But on the day that we see such a treason take place, and this official’s underlings are found to declare their allegiance to the traitor, then we can be certain that the imperial state is in dissolution, and is become anarchy.

Once this difference is understood, it is obvious why men who live in an imperial political order find anarchy to be the greatest imaginable evil. For it is no doubt correct that great masses of humanity depend for their lives on the order provided by the empire. By placing his loyalty to the familiar individual above loyalty to the empire as a whole, one has in effect denied his obligation to all of the masses of humanity who are unfamiliar to him, and who depend on the empire for the order that makes life itself possible. In this way, he becomes an enemy not only of the empire, but of humanity as well. In the same fashion, we can see why men who are committed to an anarchic or feudal order regard the encroachment of agents of the imperial state with such horror. For in demanding that allegiance to the empire be placed above loyalty to the familiar individual who has in fact afforded protection to and cared for the needs of those dependent on him, these agents of empire demand nothing less than the sundering and betrayal of the concrete bonds of affection and self-interest that have stood at the foundation of society and stability.

On this basis, we can recognize that empire and anarchy are not merely political constructs, or competing methods of ordering political power. Each is in fact a political ordering principle that draws its legitimacy, and therefore its strength, from its rootedness in the moral order. It is for this reason that men understand the political order in which they live and to which they are committed in terms of principle; and that the struggle between empire and anarchy is not only a war of opportunists and villains seeking the greatest power for themselves, but equally a confrontation between men of good will who disagree regarding the degree of moral legitimacy and sanction that can be ascribed to each of the respective political orders.

Thus our effort to identify the principles that underpin the respective political orders leads us to conclude the following: First, that the imperial state is always predicated on the principle of the unity of unfamiliar humanity. Even in an empire which is not yet universal in its extent or in its official self-understanding, the individual is nevertheless asked to sacrifice on the basis of an obligation he is presumed to have towards the great mass of unfamiliar men, who, though they be perfect strangers to him, are nonetheless men such as he is. According to this principle, each individual must give his utmost to the common order of mankind, whether or not he is presently the beneficiary of this order, for only in this fashion can the generality of mankind prosper. And it is this, the claim to bring order and even progress to mankind, which gives moral sanction to the laws and wars of the imperial state, even where these seem to have no apparent bearing on the well-being of the specific individual.

The difficulty with this principle of unity with the mass of unfamiliar men is that, being so abstract that it is always detached from the apparent interests of each concrete individual, it quickly becomes detached from the concrete interests of all of them—while at the same time leaving none with the standing to complain about the expropriation of his property and life, since these are carried out in the name of the generality of humanity, whose needs and interests the individual cannot reasonably presume to understand. This being the case, it is also true that wherever this principle is imbedded in the heart of the state, whether this state seems on its face to be vicious or benign, it logically gives birth to conquest and to the subjugation of neighboring peoples, depending only upon the measure of force that it is capable of bringing to bear.

Discussed in these terms we can see precisely the extent to which America is indeed an Empire. However, it’s an unusual sort of empire because rather than try to establish a single unified state it proposes that well the proper values of men (because they are God’s) are universal men can still live in many different states. Mr. Hazony touches on this later:

With this in mind, I would like to consider what type of ordering principle arises once we have conceived of a political allegiance that rises above the familiar individual of the anarchic order, but stops only half as high as the celestial dome of unfamiliar humanity. Here, at the inflection point between anarchy and empire, one finds the idea of the independent national state. And here one finds a third ordering principle whose root is in the moral order, and the one that in my view is the best and most noble of the three: The principle of national liberty.

The principle of national liberty offers a nation with an evident capacity for self-government, and with the ability to withstand the siren songs of empire and anarchy, an opportunity to live according to its own understanding. Such a principle therefore conceives of the political order as one in which each such nation is left to pursue its own unique purposes in its own national state. The principle of national liberty thus takes as its point of departure that which is vital and constructive in each of the two principles with which it competes: From the principle of empire, it takes the ideal of direct allegiance to the abstraction of the state rather than to familiar men—the practical effect of which is a state monopoly on arms and law such as admits the possibility of domestic peace; and the possibility of living under an abstracted authority that is no longer connected to particular individuals by ties of familiarity, this being the most important condition for establishing impartial justice. From the principle of anarchy, it retains the ideal of a ruler sensitive to the actual interests and aspirations of specific persons living in a particular society; it is this that finds expression in the aim of government over a single nation only—an aim that in effect proscribes foreign conquest, and for the first time permits a conception of the liberty of other nations as a potential good in itself. Indeed, these same two components, exclusive government over a given nation, and the limitation of government to a particular nation, are the essential prerequisites of national liberty; and together they constitute the ideal of national sovereignty.15

We are accustomed to thinking of the political good in Platonic terms, as the quest for the good regime. But the foregoing suggests that the possibility of establishing the good regime may itself require the prior establishment of a tolerable political order, which can serve as the foundation for such a regime. For where the imperial and anarchic principles continue their rule, the good regime—and in particular the institutions that we today associate with free government—is impossible. A state which is not devoted to the principle of governing a certain nation alone, but which instead entertains thoughts of unification with various unfamiliar nations, is ultimately a conquering state, whose energies are constantly dispersed in the emergencies of extension and domination. Such a state tends to see before it imperial interests that are increasingly detached from the reality in which each of its subject peoples lives, so that it is necessarily lacking a proper concern for the troubles of any actual people. Consequently, this type of regime is hardly ever conducive to developing truly representative government or equality before the law, not to speak of a decent respect for liberty. Moreover, the imperial state, even when it is not engaged in overt conquest, can never restrain itself from menacing other governments, undermining their legitimacy and traditions, and the integrity of their rule, the better to continue on its course of extension the moment it sees an opportunity to do so.

In the same manner, we find that the premise of personal loyalty to familiar men, which is at the heart of all anarchic order, is in effect a principle of sedition and resistance against every impersonal government, whose role must of necessity be to replace the corruption of individual loyalties with a concern for true justice and the good of the people as a whole. In this, the anarchic principle is inevitably at war with the institutions of free government, as these can only develop where loyalty to individuals has been superseded as the ordering principle of public life by loyalty to all members of an entire people. Thus the principle of anarchy is found not only to be an impossibly poor soil for the development of the institutions of a free people, but also, like the principle of empire, to undermine these wherever they are found.

Taken together, these observations suggest that free institutions can develop only under a particular kind of political order: Such institutions must come into being, if they are to come into being at all, in that space that exists between the transition of a people from personal to national loyalties, on the one hand; and their acceptance of imperial assumptions for themselves, on the other. It is here, and only here, that one finds the possibility of political life ordered in accord with the principle of national sovereignty, and it is this principle that holds the key to the establishment of the good regime and of free government generally.

In effect, what America proposes is to establish everywhere the principle (and to impose the reality) of legitimate national sovereignty. But the legitimacy, as Mr. Hazony concedes, presupposes that each nation will be faithful to certain universal ideals like “a concern for true justice and the good of the people as a whole,” which requires “the development of the institutions of a free people.”

National liberty may be the happy medium between empire and anarchy, but its adoption as a form of government is basically being driven by imperial means. Perhaps we might think of it as follows: at the End of History lies national liberty, but we are hastening that End.

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