What Does it Mean to be Free?

An Honest Defense of Subsidiarity and Localism

This is part one of what will be a two(?) part series on building a system that genuinely defends localism and subsidiarity.

Yesterday, I discussed the distinction between Values and Ideology. I wish to use that distinction to understand a phenomenon: libertarianism.

Let me put something very simply: Libertarianism doesn’t work. Being a Liberal ideology, it makes sense Libertarianism is incoherent. The Harm Principle makes no sense. There is no Negative-Positive rights distinction. It all collapses when it’s poked a bit.

But, of course, we are talking about an ideology. What about the values underneath that ideology? What kinds of values lead one to supporting libertarianism? Might we consider those values, independent of any ideology, to be good? And, if so, might there be an alternative system/ideology that fulfills those values to a far greater extent than “libertarianism”?

Democracy =/= Equal Power

Democracy is not the same as equal power. “One person, one vote” does not make us all equal in terms of the power we wield.

We place our trust in different institutions. And these institutions are, by and large, asymmetric: the institution is smaller than its audience. And if the audience believes the institution, then a large number of people will make decisions based on information that a small number of people give to them.

Our trust has been placed in institutions run by small cadres of elites (and their algorithms) who determine what one sees, what one hears, who one meets, and what one is even allowed to say.

Democracy on a sufficiently large scale is nothing more than a system in which elites propagandize the people to support their elite interests and legitimize those interests through “the will of the people” as expressed through voting. What this means, of course, is that democracy beyond the local level doesn’t actually lead to anything approximating equality or freedom. It is simply a different form of oligarchy.

Democracy simply launders coercion through claims to authority/legitimacy. It does not radically shift pre-existing power dynamics, it just obfuscates them. Power does not dissipate, it re-structures itself in order to take advantage of this new decision-making/authority-granting process:

Where Democracy Matters, and Where it Matters Not

What matters, far more than “democracy”, is the distribution of material power. We need to bring this material power, not the formal power of voting, back to the people. We need to maximize the ability for each individual to control their own destiny (bounded by ethics, of course).

But the need for freedom isn’t just in the realm of government. Government is not the only “coercive” entity. Whether you are ruled by sociopathic eggs-in-suits in Washington D.C. or NYC and Silicon Valley, it doesn’t matter. A corporate bootlicker is still a bootlicker. (Or, more saliently, whether the government mandates it or corporations do, you’re being forced to get a vaccine either way. Good luck living without these major corporations. “Muh private companies can do what they want, wahhh.”)

If we take localism and the spirit of democracy seriously, the goal here must be to build a system in which the distribution of material power looks like a pyramid, with more and more of the material power being held by local institutions and individuals. This is subsidiarity in action.

A major benefit of localism is accountability/responsibility. Bureaucracies can’t grow to as excessive of sizes when they’re kept on a local level. It is more clear who is responsible for what. And when something goes wrong, we know who to blame. There is, ahem, skin in the game.

Who is Ruling Me?

The issue that emerges as bureaucracies become more complex and kafkaesque and governance becomes more distant, is that it isn’t clear who is to blame when things go wrong.

One of the most pernicious and difficult things to deal with in this world is the obscurity of power. The greatest tragedy of our world is that, lost in the endless array of kafkaesque bureaucracies and narrative-forming entities, it isn't even clear who to blame! Who should I be mad at? "The Man"? That's meaningless.

Accountability is always critical, but becomes even more important as you get more federal/distant in governance. Responsibility cannot be allowed to be obfuscated amongst a bureaucracy of endless, faceless cogs (human and non-human). Certainly, the most democratic thing you can do in a highly federalized and complex system is make it clear who should be gui**otined when things go wrong.

The Inescapability of Sovereignty

In the Formalist/Post-Liberal/Neo-Absolutist/“I need to go outside more” space, “sovereignty” is discussed as an inescapable fact. But Sovereignty is a complicated concept (one I will delve into in more depth at a future point), and I want to focus on one component of it: Deference.

The Sovereign is the decision-maker that is ultimately deferred to. They are the locus of praise when things go right, and of resentment when things go wrong. They are the true Center and possess Authority.

Here, I need to make an important distinction between authority and power:

Power is the material ability to command action from others.

Authority is the moral right to command action from others.

One can centralize decision-making through the centralization of authority, without necessarily centralizing material power to as much of an extent.

Freedom does not exist when material power is concentrated and decision making is formally distributed to the people, allowing an oligarchy to launder their interests through the legitimization scheme of “voting”. Freedom exists when material power is distributed, and all decision makers in the polity are visible/de-obfuscated and able to be held accountable.

Moving Forward

I have mentioned before on Twitter that I have largely grown tired of purely theoretical discussions. I prefer discussing more practical/pragmatic measures. Tomorrow I’m going to release a more praxis-oriented piece that explains some ways to actually go about distributing this material power away from centralized government and corporations and to local institutions and individuals. Accountability demands de-obfuscation and a distribution of power. Without accountability, institutions gradually crumble and people tear each other apart.

If you made it all the way to the end of this piece, congratulations. Consider sharing this piece and following me here and on twitter. It’s free! (I can’t, in good conscience, put my ramblings behind a paywall).

Questions and critiques are always welcome. I hope you all have a good day.

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